Protests during past Olympics may offer insight to Sochi’s LGBT strain

Credit: AP - In this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 file photo a Russian gay rights activist walks along a police line during a rally at a Moscow boulevard. When the Sochi Winter Olympics begin on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, many will be watching to see whether Russia will enforce its law banning gay “propaganda” among minors if athletes, fans or activists wave rainbow flags or speak out in protest. The message so far has been confusing. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko, file)

Credit: AP – In this Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 file photo a Russian gay rights activist walks along a police line during a rally at a Moscow boulevard. When the Sochi Winter Olympics begin on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, many will be watching to see whether Russia will enforce its law banning gay “propaganda” among minors if athletes, fans or activists wave rainbow flags or speak out in protest. The message so far has been confusing. (AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Yesterday marked the official start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and already four gay activists have been arrested after unfurling a banner quoting the Olympic Charter’s ban on discrimination. Earlier this week, the Human Rights Campaign sent an email urging supporters to petition NBC to “devote significant primetime Olympics coverage to the LGBT crisis in Russia.”

The network will air more than 1,500 hours of coverage over the course of the Games, and while the anti-LGBT propaganda law has been getting a lot of attention in the weeks leading up to them, will the official U.S. coverage hone in on the tension? Protests are by no means unprecedented for the Olympic Games. Here’s a look at previous coverage of controversies surrounding the Games in recent years:

2008 Beijing Summer Olympics: Months before the Games even began, when the Olympic torch arrived April 9 in San Francisco, networks aired considerable coverage of protests pointing to human rights abuses by the Chinese government. The organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR.org) noted that CNN gave related coverage 40,000+ words that day alone.

2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics: With the United States’ neighbor, Canada, as the host country this time around, U.S. media coverage of protestors was comparatively marginal. Only nine articles appeared in the New York TimesWashington Post, and USA Today between the two weeks prior to the Opening Ceremony and the day after the Closing Ceremony. Canadian press, on the other hand, published more than eight times the number of U.S. articles, covering everything from sustainability to the presence of poverty in the shadow of millions spent on Olympics construction and security.

2012 London Summer Olympics: These Games, as with Vancouver 2010, also shared a close cultural proximity with the United States. Unlike the previous Summer Olympics in Beijing, the controversy-based coverage was relatively mild. Pre-Games coverage once again emerged, with articles like this one from the GlobalPost touting five activist groups that were likely to be ‘heard from’.

That brings us to Sochi, which, like Beijing, resides in a country that has proved politically problematic for the U.S. in the past with its Communist undertow. The world will soon see how the new LGBT narrative will play out in mainstream media; but if its anything resembling previously documented protest coverage, viewers and readers may witness the three-stage phenomenon laid out for the last Winter Olympics by FAIR.org writers Jules Boykoff and Casey Nishimura: 1) pre-Olympic stories that allow space for dissent (which has been confirmed with the plethora of LGBT segments), 2) articles appearing once the Olympics begin where media slip into the well-worn ruts of activist denunciation (i.e. traditional narratives of protesters as ‘trouble-makers’), and 3)  articles appearing toward the end of the Games that praise the police and champion the Olympics as a success. This is by no means a be-all and end-all formula, but perhaps may be used as a tool to evaluate coverage of this year’s Olympics, and subsequently validated or contradicted.

Meanwhile, a designated protest area has been set up in a village approximately seven miles from the main Olympic Park in Sochi.

More updates on protest coverage and a follow-up analysis of the Games will be posted to this blog in the upcoming weeks.

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