Amber Hildebrandt - Friday Feb. 7, 2014 16:45 ET

Sochi opening ceremony can't avoid anti-gay law controversy

Faux lesbian singers, gay composer, anti-discrimination comment sprinkled throughout

Opening ceremony
Ballet dancers perform a lit-up rendition of Swan Lake during the opening ceremony. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

The world sat captivated as Russia relayed its country’s story in spectacular film and theatre, but if Sochi’s opening ceremony aimed to take attention off the anti-gay law controversy swirling around the 2014 Winter Games, it failed.

In a speech that yet again hammered away at a message calling for political neutrality during the Games, International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach waded into the politics surrounding Russia’s law banning gay ‘propaganda’ with comments about discrimination and embracing human diversity.

It was one of many subtle references to homosexuality – intended or not – during the flashy pageantry of the official start that also included music from fake lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u. and beloved (and gay) Russian composer Tchaikovsky.

The only direct comment was during Bach’s speech – and even that was wrapped in the usual Olympic rhetoric.

“It is possible, even as competitors to live together under one roof in harmony with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason,” Bach said in his address to the world.

The IOC president stressed that the biggest sporting event in the world was about “building bridges to bring people together” not “erecting walls to keep people apart.”

“Olympic Games are a sports festival embracing human diversity in great unity,” he added.

The message of unity and peace is one that the Olympics Games always seeks to send, with a truce tradition dating back to ancient Greece. But Bach’s words took on new resonance in the context of the Sochi Games.

Seven months prior to the largest Winter Games ever, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed an anti-gay law that banned gay “propaganda” from reaching minors. It also barred unsanctioned protests.

Faux lesbians, gay composer

Among the performers at the opening ceremony were Russian singers t.A.T.u., who sang Not Gonna Get Us, a pop song chosen, organizers say, because it’s internationally recognizable.

The singers – Yulia Volkova and Lena Katina – are known for their attention-getting lesbian antics on stage, famously kissing on stage during the 2003 MTV Movie Awards. The two, who are both heterosexual, tamely held hands during their Olympic performance.

Gay Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s music also featured heavily in the ceremony, including a LED-lit performance of the famous classical ballet Swan Lake.

Though the 19th-century composer’s sexuality was mentioned by commentators, in the months leading up to the Games, Russia’s culture minister sought to deny the Tchaikovsky was gay.

Minister Vladimir Medinsky said he was simply a lonely man who failed to marry. Historians, however, say that historical facts are overwhelming on their side.

Flag controversy

Also making a splash on opening day were four gay rights activists arrested by police in St. Petersburg after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on any form of discrimination.

Back in Canada, pride politics also detracted from the revelry of the pomp and ceremony, with numerous cities unfurling the colourful flags to support gay and lesbian Russians from abroad.

In Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford became embroiled in a controversy after he opposed the rainbow flag, an international symbol of gay rights, flying at city hall.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson took the opposite tack in the capital city, flying the flag with pride for the duration of the Games.

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