One good thing about staying alive for a while is, if you haven't pickled your brain, you have personal recollections of occasions that later became historical events. Specifically, I still recall the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and the controversial events surrounding the games.
In a backdrop of international student uprisings, the unrest had come to Mexico that year. For starters, student-led protest marches against the Mexican government's political suppression, particularly of labor unions, grew to half a million by August, the month of the opening ceremony. Ten days before the games were to begin, the Mexican president made a fateful decision and troops ordered by the government to break up a crowd in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas opened fire, killing dozens and arresting thousands more in what became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Critical voices in the U.S. began expressing concern over the Mexican government's ability to furnish adequate security for the games, yet off we went, colors flying.
During the games themselves, the 200-meter gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos turned a typical medal ceremony into one of the most dramatic and iconic moments in Olympic history. Having split a pair of black gloves in advance, the teammates bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists in a black power salute when the National Anthem began to play.
This was the summer after the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and only two months after the murder of Robert Kennedy. The civilized world was railing against apartheid and race riots had erupted in more than 100 cities in the United States. Smith's and Carlos' bold act of defiance in the face of what was sure to be a fierce, if not violent backlash, illustrated that beneath the facade of unity presented by the national Olympic team, race relations were deteriorating at home. Both runners were suspended from the national team and were banned from the Olympic Village. The famous photograph of the event clearly shows that both men are wearing black socks with no shoes.
During a ceremony 40 years later at the annual ESPN Espy Awards, when the pair received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Smith explained that this was to represent black poverty in America. Their dissent was the lasting impression of the Mexico City Olympics.
For that simple reason, I hope that during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, they have the grandest, wildest gay pride parade that the old Soviet empire has ever seen. Maybe something along the lines of the ones they have in Key West, except more flamboyant.
Russian president Vlad "The Impaler" Putin, the quasi-dictator whose soul was memorably examined by George W. Bush, has been forced to issue statements in recent days stating that despite Russia's recent spate of oppressive anti-gay laws, gay athletes and their guests would be welcome in Sochi without fear of arrest or deportation. In addition, Putin granted amnesty to two members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, who were serving jail terms for their guerrilla performances critical of the president, and he pardoned an old Kremlin rival whose popularity made him dangerous enough to be locked up.
This doesn't guarantee protection from roving bands of skinhead-type groups whose brutal attacks on homosexuals are currently making international news or from terrorist bombings, like the two New Year's attacks in a town near the site of the games. Putin's promise of "total annihilation" of the terrorists should be cold comfort to the athletes who will be living in what is seemingly to be an armed camp within a police state.
The anti-gay sentiments in Russia have only been stoked by Putin, who in June signed a law allowing the police to arrest tourists or foreigners suspected of being gay or even pro-gay and detain them for up to 14 days. In July, Putin signed legislation banning gay couples from adopting Russian-born children and put into law a bill classifying "homosexual" propaganda as pornography, subjecting anyone advancing a sympathetic viewpoint toward the LGBT community to arrest and fines.
In return, President Obama made a point of meeting with gay activists during his September trip to the G2O Summit in St. Petersburg and has announced that neither he, nor Michelle, nor Joe Biden will attend the Olympics, the first time since 2000 that a U.S. president, first lady, vice president, or ex-president has not participated in the opening ceremonies. Putting an additional piledriver to Putin, Obama has appointed several famously gay athletes and officials to his personal delegation, including tennis legend Billie Jean King and women's ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow.
After years of declining to answer questions about his sexuality, figure skating star and Olympic delegate Brian Boitano has publicly come out just in time for the games. Ready or not, the rainbow connection is coming to Russia. In an editorial, The New York Times reminded readers of a provision in the charter of the International Olympic Committee that states, "Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind." With any luck, we might get to witness the U.S. Olympic delegation in Sochi practice a little sport with old "Pooty Poot."
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.