SOCHI, Russia — The first Russian-held Olympics since 1980, in a nation known for extreme censorship, has featured social commentary in even the most unexpected places — such as in the midst of a McDonald's ad campaign.
The corporate giant's "Cheers to Sochi" ad movement, meant to send well-wishes to athletes, is now a platform for a human rights fight on Twitter. One particularly angry tweet accuses McDonald's, Coke and Procter & Gamble of "spinelessness," then tells the megabrands to "have fun w/ your blood money." A search of #CheerstoSochi on Twitter leads to strident tweets opposing Russia's anti-gay laws. The Twitter account @cheers2sochi bills itself as "Your one stop #LGBT supportive account to find objections to @Olympics sponsors supporting Putin's war on gays."
"Cheers to Sochi" is now as much of a middle finger as a thumbs-up.
McDonald's acknowledged the Twitter takeover in a statement, expressing its belief that the Sochi Games "should be open to all," but that point had already been made: The first Olympics here since the fall of the Soviet Union has demonstrated how open the channels of communication have truly become. Even corporate sponsors are targets.
It was clear early on that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn't be able to clamp down on backlash as easily on the world's stage as he has behind his borders. The @SochiProblems Twitter feed, dedicated to highlighting all the technical difficulties with the Games, has 344,000 followers as of this writing. The official Sochi 2014 feed has 230,000.
Criticism has come from at least one Russian icon as well. The legendary chessmaster Garry Kasparov has been quite vocal on social media throughout the Games. He went so far as to compare Putin's 2014 Olympics to Adolf Hitler's 1936 Games.
"Anyone who thinks that is an exaggeration is forgetting a very important factor," Kasparov told the Guardian. "Hitler in 1936 was seen as a thoroughly respectable and legitimate politician."
In most prior Olympics, commentary like that wouldn't find an outlet. Even these Games launched with the news that one of Russia's only independent media outlets may get cut off. Kasparov, however, continues to send his thoughts without reservation or hesitation.
"Putin could ignore free info online while Russia still had <50% internet access," he tweeted. "Now it's higher & he's attacking it."
It's not just the opposition, either. Pravda, the name associated worldwide with quashing insurgency of opinion, has embraced the new openness as its own. In a column titled "The Misrepresentation of Sochi in the Western Media," a Pravda writer blasts the American press for "a media censorship."
[Related: 5 Things to know about the Sochi Games]
"… a puerile form of sub-journalism by little people trying to influence little minds by perpetuating the policy of trying to enhance the notion of 'us' by creating an antagonistic and dangerous 'them.' How childish … as if anyone in the USA these days believes a word their media tell them anyway, given that most people have access to the Net and to places where they can read the truth, like Pravda.Ru."
This is a true triumph: Pravda celebrating the democratization of the Olympics.
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