Why I’m not in Sochi.

Weighing the volunteer opportunity of a lifetime against some seriously compromised human rights

The Olympics are special to me in a way that few other things are. I’ve written about this in the past, but it merely scratches the surface. I spent twelve years working for major daily newspapers, and what made the routine of it all bearable was knowing that every two years I’d be intensely inspired by what happened when the world came together to run and swim or ski and skate. I’d work harder in those 18 days than at any other time, it seemed.

In 2012, shortly after leaving my full-time job as an art director at The Washington Post, I capitalized on some newfound freedom as a freelancer and booked a last-minute trip to London to witness my first Olympic Games in person. It was magical. The camaraderie — blind to nationality — the friendliness, the universal acceptance… The only time I’d experienced anything like this was at the World Cup, in South Africa two years prior. It’s an addicting feeling, and I decided then and there it was one I wanted to experience again.

I’d been so impressed by the volunteers around every corner in London that when I returned home I began researching how to volunteer at the Sochi Games in 2014. I’d always wanted to visit Russia; I’d always wanted to experience the Winter Olympics (which I’ve always been more interested in); and there was a large part of me that wanted to pay forward the warm welcome I’d received in London. It seemed like the right time — for many reasons — to take this plunge.

London Olympic Park © Tim Ball 2014

I registered my interest online, along with thousands of others. Months went by before I finally heard back from the organizing committee: I’d been selected as a volunteer. I’d be responsible for all my travel costs, but room and board would be provided, as would uniforms, and I’d get one or two days off each week to explore on my own. This sounded great, and pretty much like what I’d expected. I started making plans to be away for a month in early 2014.

I took some tests — they had to make sure I could speak English. (Oddly, any proficiency in Russian was not required or even expected.) Communication was sporadic at best, but that didn’t bother me too much. A contract arrived, along with a visa application, and later came news that I’d been selected to be part of the Photo Services team. (I’d noted my experience as an editor and art director on my application, but made no mention of my favorite pastime: photography.) A couple dozen volunteers were assigned to this team, and naturally, I was thrilled — even more likely to make the trip happen now.

London Olympic Stadium © Tim Ball 2014

I’ve never stood out as “the gay one” in a crowd of people. (This is both fortunate and unfortunate, depending on the setting.) I don’t fit any stereotypes — fair or otherwise. But I am a gay man; out to anyone who knows me. And so when things started to get even dicier for gay folks in Russia (not that it was ever exactly a dream state), the first seeds of doubt started to enter my mind about this whole endeavor. Would bad things happen to me? Would I be a witness to abuse or discrimination? If I was, would I be punished or banished for speaking up or speaking out? I wasn’t sure how to reconcile all this with my desire to be there.

As gay men and women in Russia continued to be persecuted, and as an international backlash arose against Vladimir Putin, I received another update from the organizing committee: On the Photo Services team, I’d been assigned (with only six others) to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, where I’d be a photo marshal for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Essentially, if I’d been able to pick one venue and one role for the entirety of the Games, it would have been this one. As superficial as it may sound, my decision was now even more difficult.

I talked to a few friends about how conflicted I was. I wrote my first-ever letter to The Ethicist, but Chuck Klosterman was no help. I wasn’t personally afraid for my safety — again, I do not outwardly appear gay, and I wasn’t planning to be active in any protests. But at the same time, I didn’t like the idea that I couldn’t wear a pin or a bracelet or make any other small gesture that would symbolize support of my counterparts in Russia.

London Velodrome © Tim Ball 2014

Eventually, for me, it boiled down to this: We weren’t making an even trade. I was giving three weeks of my time to the Sochi organizing committee (and, by extension, to Russia) and handing over my right to freedom of expression for that period. In return, I was getting a uniform, a bunk in a room with several other volunteers and a general lack of respect from my hosts. As badly as I wanted to be there, I couldn’t bear to give even the appearance of my support to the Russian government.

This is where I should point out that, were I attending as a spectator or a working journalist, I’d feel differently — nervous, still, but not so conflicted. Were I a paying spectator, I wouldn’t feel my hands tied by organizers; if I wanted to speak out, I’d be doing so on my own and not with an implied association to the organizers. Were I a working journalist, I’d consider it my responsibility to report on everything I witnessed; good and bad.

I’d nearly reached a final decision, but hadn’t yet communicated it to the organizing committee. A few days later, I received an email from a publicist in New York, whose prominent firm had been contracted by the organizing committee. Her note was very friendly, and let me know that I was one of a few selected by the committee to be a “Face of the Games,” talking about my experience as a volunteer. She wanted to get in touch to talk about timing and start coaching me for television interviews.

And that was the last straw. As bad as I’d have felt to be on the ground there and be required to look the other way at times, there was no way I could be the face of all of this in Russia. (And, as we’ve seen the past week, working as a publicist for these Games must be a nightmare, so this one has my sympathy.) I explained my scenario to the publicist, who responded graciously and said she completely understood. She wished me all the best.

I then emailed the head of the Photo Services team in Russia to explain, in the same words, why I had to back out. The response wasn’t quite as warm. It read, in its entirety, “Good luck!”

And so I will watch the Olympics, and for the first time in 14 years, I’ll neither be there to see them, nor be involved in covering them. And I’ll hope things go smoothly, and gays — indeed all the visitors to Sochi — are treated fairly and without discrimination or hate. I’ll hope that spectators and athletes and volunteers stay safe from threats, be they from snowboard ramps or explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes. And I’ll celebrate the victories from my home.

But it just won’t be the same.

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