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Despite Risks, Sochi Athletes Determined To Protest Russian Antigay Law

Demonstrators raise rainbow flags at Stockholm's Olympic Stadium during a protest over a controversial Russian law banning gay "propaganda." Some athletes attending the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia have also pledged to denounce the legislation even though explicit political statements are forbidden by the Olympic Charter.
Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff has promised not to mince her words when she denounces Russia's recently enacted antigay law during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The openly lesbian athlete says she is "not happy" with Russian President Vladimir Putin for overseeing a tough crackdown on homosexuals and has threatened to "rip on his ass" during the games -- which open on February 7 in the Russian Black Sea resort.

Brockhoff belongs to a small but determined group of athletes who plan to show their solidarity with Russia's embattled lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community during the Olympics, despite lingering uncertainty over exactly what forms of protest will be tolerated in Sochi.

Former U.S. luger and four-time Olympian Cameron Myler she says the controversial Russian legislation, which slaps fines on anyone deemed to engage in "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations," runs counter to the Olympic spirit.

"The law was a little concerning to me because the Olympic Charter is so clear about being inclusive," she says. "It is one of the fundamental principles on which the Olympic Games and the Olympic movement are based."

In the run-up to the Olympics, athletes have been mulling ways to take a stand without running afoul of both Russian law and the Olympic Charter itself, which prohibits political statements during the event.

Foreigners violating the "propaganda" law face fines, deportation, and jail terms of up to 15 days.

Rainbow Flags

Proposals have included holding hands with fellow athletes of the same sex during opening ceremonies or wearing pins, earrings, nail polish, or other accessories representing the rainbow flag -- an international symbol for LGBT rights.

New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup is one of several competitors who plan to wear a rainbow pin during the competition.

But even with the games poised to begin, confusion still reigns about what athletes can and cannot do.

Putin has sought to reassure gay athletes, saying they could "feel free and calm" in Sochi. His warning that they should "leave children alone," however, has riled the LGBT community, increasingly weary of being conflated with pedophiles by Russian officials.

"We don't have a ban on nontraditional sexual relations between people," Putin said last month. "We have a ban on the propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia; I would like to underline that."

The Russian law, in effect, bans the promotion of gay rights and any public displays of affection among same-sex couples.

The president of the Sochi organizing committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, has pledged that there would be no punishment for sporting rainbow-colored accessories during the Games.

"People should not be afraid of painting their nails in a rainbow," he said.

But the loose wording of the "propaganda" law and the string of homophobic assaults it has unleashed -- including several killings -- are casting doubt on the safety of staging even such innocuous forms of protest in Sochi.

For many rights advocates, the arrest of a young LGBT campaigner during an Olympic torch relay in the Russian city of Voronezh last month came as a sign that that Russia may not prove that lenient after all.

Footage of the incident shows the activist briefly waving a rainbow flag before being pinned to the ground by Olympic security guards and handed over to police. Several onlookers are seen heckling him and asking the police to remove him from the site.

He was later taken in for questioning and fined.

WATCH: An LGBT Rights Activist Is Arrested During The Olympic Torch Relay (natural sound)

Olympic officials, too, have issued stern warnings to athletes.

The Swedish Olympic Committee has urged competitors to keep their opinions under wraps in Sochi after two Swedish sportswomen caused a stir by painting their nails in rainbow colors at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow last year to protest Russia's antigay legislation.

The protest drew a sharp rebuke from world-record pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who said LGBT activists should not be allowed to "promote and do all this stuff on the street" because Russians consider themselves to be "normal, standard people."

Isinbayeva has since been appointed mayor of one of Sochi's three Olympic villages.

Swedish officials swiftly ordered high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and sprinter Moa Hjelmer to remove the offensive nail polish.

International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach has also strongly advised athletes against using the Olympics "as a stage for political demonstrations however good the cause may be."

He appeared to somewhat soften his stance last month by indicating that athletes would have complete freedom of speech at Olympic news conferences.

One day later, however, Chernyshenko added to the confusion by denying there would be any tolerance of "views not related to sport" at news briefings.

Creative Initiatives

To prevent athletes from getting into trouble, the U.S. advocacy groups Athlete Ally and All Out have come up with a creative way for athletes to safely highlight gay-rights abuses in Russia.

They have encouraged both competitors and spectators to display the logo P6 --a reference to Principle Six of the Olympic Charter, which stipulates that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

"In advocating for the upholding of the Olympic Charter itself, in don't think a political statement is necessarily being made and that it is violating any other rules of the Olympic Charter," says Brian Healey, a program coordinator with Athlete Ally. "We think that is why Principle 6 is the perfect way to call attention to what is going on in Russia within the Olympic mindset."

Moscow police detain a rights activist during a protest against a ban on staging a gay pride parade during the Sochi Olympics.
Moscow police detain a rights activist during a protest against a ban on staging a gay pride parade during the Sochi Olympics.

The initiative has been backed by a number of Olympians, including Belle Brockhoff, who has posed wearing some of the P6 clothing items released ahead of the games.

Several prominent U.S. publications have also embraced the campaign. In its February issue, the fashion magazine "Vogue" featured a black P6 hat created by top fashion designer Alexander Wang.

Cameron Myler, who became a lawyer after retiring from sports, is confident that athletes won't be penalized for donning P6 logos during the Sochi Games.

"As a lawyer, I would be surprised if the law would be interpreted so broadly for someone to perceive the letter 'P' and the number '6' as somehow being propaganda that promotes an unconventional lifestyle," she says.

Outside Sochi, too, activists have come up with creative initiatives to denounce mounting homophobia in Russia.

Twitter users have hijacked McDonalds's #CheersToSochi hashtag to criticize the Russian law and lambast the fast-food chain for failing to speak out against it.

Coca-Cola, another major Sochi sponsor, has also been targeted.

Activists have used the online ''I'd like to share a Coke with...'' promotion to publish images of Coca-Cola cans with labels such as ''Gaybashers,'' "Olympic Shame," "Homophobic," and ''Haters.''

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Olga Loginova contributed to this report from New York