Monthly Archives: January 2014


Next month’s games will embarrass Russians … but may change them

Russia Figure Skating Cup Of Russia Ashley Wagner

Sochi. A few weeks ago, you’d have been forgiven for confusing it with a Japanese dish served with raw fish, or Nigella Lawson’s ex. Soon, Sochi will be one of the world’s news capitals. Sochi 2014 will be known in much the same way as Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972. The cities and the years denote the place and time of the Olympic games; but they are memorialized not for sport, but because they serve as emblems of social and political events. In Mexico, two African American athletes staged a silent protest against racism while on the victory rostrum. At the Munich Olympics the Palestinian splinter group Black September killed nine members of the Israeli Olympic team and killed two others to highlight how the political rights of displaced Palestinian Arabs were being disregarded. In both cases, the Olympics effectively served as a global showcase.

Sochi is the Russian port in the foothills of the Caucasus, where, on February 7, the 2014 Winter Olympics will open. At a cost of US$51 billion (£32 bn), it is the most expensive Olympics in history and offers an opportunity for Russia to publicize its status as a major, advanced, capitalist power, worthy of overseas investment. It will do more than that.

Last year, Russia introduced a law that criminalizes “homosexual propaganda,” making public displays that promote gay rights, including handholding, punishable by imprisonment. The law became an international cause célèbre. US president Barack Obama criticized the legislation on television hours before cancelling summit talks with Russia’s Premier Vladimir Putin. British actor Stephen Fry, who is openly gay, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging a boycott of the games. Putin, according to Fry, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did to Jews.” The statement was criticised as ridiculous by several commentators. David Cameron acknowledged Fry’s concerns but insisted, “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

The games will definitely go ahead, though many athletes, gay and straight, will wrestle with a dilemma: by going to Sochi they may appear to endorse a Russian leadership that, far from safeguarding the interests of minorities, has passed laws that legitimize prejudices entrenched in the former communist bloc. The law is actually consistent with the retrogressive assault on civil society and political opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The jailing of the dissident female rock duo Pussy Riot was a warning shot and the release of the singers two months before the end of their sentence has been seen as a transparent attempt to take out some of the sting of world opinion prior to the Olympics. “This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism,” said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. “It happened because Putin is afraid that Olympic Games in Sochi will be boycotted.”

The antigay law has Putin’s fingerprints all over it: he has consistently sought to promote a conservative ideology, advocating Russian nationalism and close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. It was entirely within his power to veto the controversial law. Instead he pandered to the homophobic and xenophobic elements of Russian society. But the costs will be punishing.

Putin knows he can’t mute the protests. The establishment of “public protest zones” to contain protesters will be ignored, just as the designated areas Beijing sectioned off to absorb protests against China’s human rights record and its policy on Tibet, went unused during the 2008 Olympics. Protests near the competition were quelled and activists either detained or deported. Putin has a reputation as a hard man, but he wouldn’t countenance such draconian measures, especially as he is forewarned. He recently declared gay people “can feel relaxed and comfortable” at the games as long as they “leave the children in peace”.

Obama has delivered him a slap in face by sending three openly gay members in the official US delegation. Several athletes have publicly stated their intention to flout the law. One of them is Ashley Wagner (pictured above), a 22-year-old figure skater who has murmured: “This is the opportunity for the Olympics to be ground-breaking.” She will no doubt incite Russian officials by wearing rainbow earrings and nails on the ice and, with others, is still thinking about how best to make her views known. “Too many people are quiet,” she reckons. Wagner could emerge as an improbable symbol of protest.

Billie Jean King, the first internationally famous female athlete to come out as gay in 1981 after her partner filed a palimony lawsuit against her, is in the American delegation and has alluded to Mexico 1968: “Sometimes, I think we need a John Carlos moment.” Carlos (below, on right) was one of the two black Americans who raised a defiant gloved fist and bowed his head as the Stars and Stripes was played; he was subsequently banned from sport, but history has transformed him into a champion of civil rights. Sochi may well produce a comparable event. But will its effects be as far-reaching?

Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1986 Olympics
For as long as anyone can remember the only certainty about inequality, exploitation and persecution, from despotism to slavery to apartheid, is that sport can either support them or challenge them. For those who piously insist sport and politics should be kept separate, the paradox is a torment: sport can be a potent political instrument, as the Gleneagles Agreement of 1971 shows. Signatories affirmed their opposition to apartheid by agreeing to end sporting contacts with South Africa. It became an effective adjunct to other forms of pressure to isolate South Africa and render it a pariah.

Sochi will hyphenate the introduction of Russia’s antigay laws with the football World Cup, which the nation will host in 2018. If the nation trembles with dread and staggers in astonishment at the strength of opposition to its regressive legislation, then it will surely ponder the even fiercer pushback in four years time.  We’re not going to witness a Tahrir Square-like rally or another Tiananmen Square. But there will be an event that causes wide-ranging changes that will either transfigure Russian society or lay bare its primitive repudiation of fairness, justice and egalitarianism.


This has been published simultaneously by the LSE Politics and Policy blog

Corrie and the right-to-die, part three


The contentious subject of euthanasia has never before been addressed, at least not like this: uncluttered by piousness and unblemished by homily. Coronation Street has abstracted from the ethical debate about the right-to-die a dramatic exposition of the emotions it elicits and the human consequences it involves. On Monday night, viewers will weep as the terminally ill Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondalgh (below), takes her own life. It will be the culmination of perhaps the most challenging and certainly the most provocative storyline in the history of the soap and, for that matter, any soap.

Hayley Cropper from Coronation Street

Readers of this blog will know I have twice written appreciative pieces on this story, which has been handled with delicacy and imagination by the scriptwriters. Hesmondalgh and her stage husband David Neilson, who plays Roy Cropper, have delivered virtuoso performances, taking viewers on a forbidding journey from Hayley’s initial prognosis through an uncomfortable debate and finally to Monday night’s finale. The entire story has rang with truth even against the background of comic turns and improbable chains of events elsewhere in the show. The tragically deteriorating Hayley’s death is all the more powerful because we believe it. So much so that the Samaritans fear it could affect “vulnerable viewers.”  The Samaritans are undoubtedly well-intentioned, but when they warn, “There is a risk of copycat suicides,” they are inadvertently being alarmist. There is no such risk. Coronation Street viewers are sentient enough to realize they are engaging with a drama, not seeking counsel from Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who assisted in many patient suicides. Other groups, such as Care Not Killing have complained the story should have focused on the quality care available to terminally ill patients. My own view is that the writers have done their due diligence and presented a storyline that has covered several angles without losing any of the humanity involved. This is not to say it won’t influence people: it most assuredly will, but in a way that promotes reflection and deliberation. No one will watch Monday’s two episodes and remain unchanged. Art should change us. I have covered the various sides of the debate previously and won’t repeat them; suffice it to say that, in my view, Corrie has steered refreshingly clear of moral signposts and simply allowed viewers to become guiltless intruders on a highly personal discourse between two people who love each other but recognize the inevitability of one’s death. We have been able to glimpse the terrible vision and, on Monday, some of us will need to watch through parted fingers as Hayley leaves us.

I will be discussing this story with Liz Green on her morning show on BBC Radio Leeds next Monday.



The celebrity beard


Designer stubble faded from view along with shoulder pads and Miami Vice in the 1990s. After that, the beard was mainly for folk singers, real ale aficionados or members of the creative underground. Now, it seems, the beard or any kind of facial hair has been coopted by respectable classes. Bank managers, accountants and solicitors have been instrumental in the mainstreaming of beards. No one bats an eyelid at the guy behind the counter at the building society who looks as if he hasn’t shaved for a week. A year ago, we might have regarded him as scruffy and inappropriately un-groomed for a public service job.

Don Johnson - Miami Vice

Don Johnson, of Miami Vice, in the 1980s

So it came as a surprise to me when the manager of Canada’s men’s hockey team for next month’s Olympics instructed his players to go clean-shaven. As you’ll imagine, the only Olympic sport that bans beards is boxing. And, as far as anyone knows, other members of the Canadian Olympic team can wear facial hair. But General manager Steve Yzerman – himself clean-shaven  — has put his foot down. Fans of the National Hockey League (NHL) will know that there is a custom when teams progress to the playoff stage of competition: players shave only when they get eliminated. The playoff beard tradition was started back in the early 1980s. The President of Team Hockey explained: ““He [Yzerman] wants everyone to be respectable and we’ve never had an issue with this.” So one imagines Canada’s players will be understandably upset at this, particularly at a time when beards are accepted at all levels of “respectable” society. Perhaps they’ll realize Yzerman is hopelessly out-of-touch. The beard has lost its rebel aesthetic. It would be no surprise if David Cameron or Nick Clegg started cultivating hirsute chins any day.

Will King, the British entrepreneur behind King of Shaves, the men’s grooming aids company, recently reported: “Sales across the shaving industry were actually down in the UK and US last year for the first time because of guys not shaving.” King blames the “celebrity beard” coupled with the recession.


We’re used to the likes of George Clooney (above), Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling appearing unshaven one minute and smooth-chinned the next. But there were gasps when Jeremy Paxman, of all people, sprouted a full set of whiskers, then shaved 147 days later. In the USA, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, appeared on the briefing room podium sporting facial hair a fortnight ago. Conspicuous facial hair, it seems, is now consistent with conventionality, orthodoxy and accepted standards. This could mean the beginning of the end for facial hair, of course. When the aforementioned Paxman appeared on Newsnight in an open neck shirt, he immediately sent a generation of men searching for their ties, and, if they didn’t own any, their dad’s. Paxman, the epitome of uncool, could send the beard to oblivion too. If so, King should challenge him to strive for the ZZ Top look (below); it will do wonders for shaving products sales.




Gay footballers: Clubs and agents stop them coming-out*


The recent announcement by German player Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is gay has once more raised the question of why more gay footballers do not feel confident enough to come out. I’ve conducted research on the subject which reveals what prohibits gay footballers from coming out

Robbie Rogers

When Marcus Urban revealed how, during his professional football career, he lived in fear of having his sexual orientation made public, it surprised no one. The once-promising East German youth international played in the 1980s, after all. Only one prominent athlete was known to be gay: Billie-Jean King’s sexuality became public in 1981 when she was sued by a former lover, who also worked as her secretary. Other gay athletes cautiously waited for the fallout from King’s revelation. Three decades later, there are openly gay athletes, not only in tennis, but in most major sports, even the traditionally macho sports like boxing and rugby. Yet Urban’s sport seems to have preserved its prejudices, as if in aspic. In the entire history of the sport, only two professional players have declared themselves to be gay during their competitive career. English player Justin Fashanu came out in 1990 after threats by a newspaper and, more recently, American Robbie Rogers (pictured above) retired, came out, then resumed playing, making him the only openly gay professional footballer (Anton Hysén, is also outspokenly gay, though he is a semi-professional in a minor Swedish league).

Is football out-of-step with other sports? Is its culture anachronistic – conspicuously old-fashioned? Or are there other, hidden factors that prohibit gay players from being honest and maintain the code of silence that proved such a torture not only to Urban, but to countless other gay footballers? There are gay footballers, probably hundreds if not thousands of them. Why do they not come out? The popular reason is: the hostile reaction of fans. The explanation may have been credible in Urban’s time, but are today’s fans ferociously opposed to gay players? No: in fact over 9 out of 10 fans insist homophobia has no place in modern football. The absence of gay professional players is becoming an embarrassment – it projects the misleading impression that football culture is mired in bigotry. This is not opinion; it is the conclusion of a study of 3500 fans I conducted with my colleague Jamie Cleland. While fans emphatically rejected that they harboured unfriendly feelings towards gay players, they understood the reasons why they were conventionally identified as the cause. They are easy targets who rarely have the opportunity to answer back And there is logic in what they argue: when Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas (below) came out, fans were indifferent, unconcerned about their private lives. Football fans would respond similarly. Because there are no openly gay players outside the USA’s – and I do not intend this to be insulting – somewhat insignificant Major League Soccer, we cannot test this argument.

Gareth Thomas Reads

More plausible explanations lie inside the football industry, where agents and clubs are always sensitive to the market. Agents earn their living from commissions derived from their clients’ (that is, players’) earnings. It is probable that they persuade gay clients not to gamble, at least until their careers are at an end. Clubs are conservative institutions and wish to preserve a status quo that has endured, in some cases, for over a century. “The club with a gay player” is probably not a label relished by football clubs. While officially clubs condemn homophobia and other types of discrimination, it is easy to imagine how they advise players to remain in the closet … at least until they move to another club, or retire completely! While this state of affairs persists, fans get the blame and the real culprits stay hidden. So the scarcity of gay players provides a spurious evidence of the presumed malevolence of fans. And fans can do nothing to destroy a myth that has been in football at least since Urban’s time.

* This is a translation of the author’s article, which was published in the January 2014 edition of the German cultural affairs magazine Kulturaustausch