When the Olympics, human rights collide

By Lawrence Cosentino

Local LGBT community reacts to the Olympic games being held in a country known for its human rights violations

Sergei Kvitko claims to be “clueless” about sports — he can’t tell the Super Bowl from the Rose Bowl — but he has good reason to follow the politics of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Kvitko, a pianist and recording engineer, emigrated from Russia in 1995 and lives in Lansing with his partner, James McClurken.

“I’m very ambivalent,” Kvitko said. “I feel like there should have been (a boycott), but a lot of people who were working so hard to get ready would have been hurt. There are other means of dealing with the issue.”

To send a message of disapproval over Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” law, President Obama stayed away and named three openly gay athletes to the 10-person U.S. delegation: tennis legend Billie Jean King, figure skating champion Brian Boitano and hockey player and two-time Olympian Caitlin Cahow.

“I think it’s awesome that he’s not going and he sent these people,” Kvitko said. “It’s bold.” King’s mother’s illness prevented her from attending.

Actor Doak Bloss would have liked to see stronger action from the United States, but he’s enjoying watching the Games with his partner, Gerardo Ascheri.

“Not to play into stereotypes, but yeah, I’m a gay person who likes figure skating,” Bloss said.

A boycott would have “ambivalently” pleased him. “I would have missed seeing (the Olympics), but I would have approved,” he said.

He wouldn’t mind seeing a demonstration of some kind from one of the gay athletes, despite the Olympic charter’s rule that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at any Olympic venue.

Penny Gardner, president of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, wouldn’t mind either.

“I would like to see a display of solidarity from those in Sochi for members of the LGBT community,” she said. “I support any protest, and I would like us to do something more in-your-face. It’s up to the athletes if our country isn’t going to do more about it.”

Bloss is not among those who liken the prospect of gay athletes’ winning medals at Sochi with African-American track and field star Jesse Owens’ triumphs at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Hitler’s Germany.

“I don’t generally approve of comparisons like that,” Bloss said. “It’s two different times, two different oppressed groups involved.”

Emily Horvath, co-chairwoman of Michigan Pride, believes the International Olympic Committee should be held accountable for selecting Russia as an Olympic venue.

“It’s unbelievable that the IOC looked at the human rights violations in Russia and decided to still host the Olympics there,” she said.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said Obama’s snub, along with the gay-weighted delegation, was a “good move.”

“I don’t think a boycott would have been the way to go,” Swope said.

Swope is concerned about the hostile climate in Russia.

“I think it’s too bad that when they were scheduling the Olympics, they didn’t take into consideration the safety and welfare of all of our athletes and spectators,” Swope said.

(“It’s pretty much impossible to be gay in Russia,” Kvitko said in an interview with City Pulse last year. “It’s not safe, even in Moscow and the big cities.”) However, Swope, like Kvitko, said he’s not much of an Olympics fan, unlike Chad Badgero.

Badgero, artistic director of the Peppermint Creek Theatre Co., is an unabashed Olympics geek. He had a “luge experience” recently in Muskegon, so he’s following the luge extra closely this year.

“Whenever the Olympics come around, I don’t know what it is — the pomp and circumstance, the patriotism, the hype — I love holing up and watching as much as I can.”

He’s elated that the U.S. is a full participant.

“I am excited by the recognition that the LGBT community is part of the dialogue of the Olympics, and of our president,” Badgero said. “The delegation of lauded athletes who also happen to be gay is thrilling.”

He doesn’t think a boycott would have accomplished much.

“Safety is probably the most important thing, but I’m not a supporter of a boycott,” he said. “There is something to be said about tradition, and what an event like the Olympics can do to pull us together.”

Besides the action on the snow and ice, Badgero can’t get enough of those inspiring athlete bios and montages of captivating moments.

“That probably shouldn’t be surprising, given that I’m in theater,” he said. “I love all that condensed drama.”

City Pulse intern RJ Wolcott contributed reporting for this story.