What athletes think about the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on the eve of the Games
From Feb. 7 to 23, queer athletes – some out, some not – will compete in the Winter Olympic Games hosted by an increasingly GLBTQ*-hating Russia. The 22nd Olympic Winter Games will not only be the most expensive Games ever hosted, held in Sochi’s subtropical climate, but will also put athletes, trainers, spectators and others on an international stage in a place where skinhead gangs have lured and videotaped assaults of gay teens, a village has gotten together to kill a suspected gay neighbour, and where Orthodox priests have led assaults on gay rights demonstrations, among other events.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed its anti-discrimination mission statement, Principle 6, includes sexual orientation, yet the IOC has refused to speak out against Russia’s laws. Betty Baxter, a former Olympian in Canadian women’s volleyball who was later fired as head coach in 1982 for being a lesbian, said she thinks the IOC bears the brunt of the blame for not thinking about the impact of holding the Games in Russia. Openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who will be competing, said he thinks the way the IOC protects its athletes needs to change. Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured the IOC the Games will be “comfortable” for GLBTQ* athletes, but many are unconvinced.
Skjellerup, a who trains in Calgary and competes for New Zealand, said he will be wearing his Pride pin during Olympic ceremonies. “Hopefully more people will offer up a statement of support or some kind of sign of support – and not only for the solidarity of the GLBTQ* community in Russia, but for the solidarity of GLBTQ* people across the world.” Skjellerup came out shortly after the 2010 Olympics and has been a driving force in GLBTQ* activism in New Zealand’s schools. He said there is nothing he’s afraid of in Russia and that, “If anything does happen, then so be it… It would definitely expedite conversation in making sure that when Olympic Games do happen, they happen in countries that are safe for all people.”
Because he was already out, Skjellerup said he couldn’t shy away from the issue. “I wouldn’t have been staying true to myself.” But the gay friends he has who are not out are more focused solely on competition. Skjellerup said he sees an opportunity forthe Games to bring about change. “The person who has put on these Olympic Games, Vladimir Putin, is the exact opposite of what the Olympic Games stand for. It’s a great opportunity for the Olympic Games to do its part in highlighting those morals that should be showing during that time.”
Baxter takes a different, more cynical view of the Games. “The way the modern Olympics are is it’s really about selling product and proving your country’s dominance,” said Baxter. “The ancient Olympics was to keep warriors fit in between wars…. And then the modern Olympics were founded basically on the same thing.” While Baxter is critical of the endeavour, her main concern is always to look at how athletes can be supported. “The last thing we want to do is move some well-meaning political campaign in and take away from their opportunities. We need to condemn Russia, but we need to be very careful in our strategies so that doing that doesn’t take away from the athletes who have worked hard. Athletes have to take four, eight, 12 years of their lives to get [to the Olympics]. What my concern would be is if there’s too much action around the [GLBTQ*] issue in Russia, it’s a distraction.”
She said the reason more high-performance athletes don’t come out is because it takes away from their main focus, their athletic feats. “When you’re competing in something where it’s a hundredth of a second, or a psychological pause where you can lose what you’ve been attempting to do with your performance, you can’t be distracted by somebody saying, ‘I support you because you’re gay.’” Even a scene with supporters at the Olympics would be harder on GLBTQ* athletes than we would imagine, said Baxter. She’s glad the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics failed. Athletes like openly-gay figure skaters Johnny Weir and Skjellerup also condemned the boycott, saying it would have punished athletes more than Russia.
The 1968 Games saw an organized call by African-American athletes to boycott, but when that fell apart, two athletes memorably took their protest to the medal stand. Baxter said one strategy that would have worked should have been implemented some time ago. “Each Olympics has generally a beverage company, generally a telecommunications company and generally a petroleum company…. If we’d had massive boycotts for those companies, the Olympics would have been moved out of Russia, there’s no doubt.”
Outside the safety of the Olympic Village, tireless gay Russian activist Nikolai Alekseyev has announced a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening of the Games. Meanwhile, athletes like Skjellerup will be doing their part to raise visibility within the confines of the Village. “It would be nice to not have to stand up and to fight for who I am, but that is unfortunately the situation that I’m in. I have to speak out, and I have to be that voice, because there aren’t a lot of GLBTQ* athletes in sport. That visibility isn’t there, and that visibility needs to be there. GLBTQ* youth who are growing up need to see that you can be whatever you wish to be in life, and that your sexuality isn’t something that prevents you from doing that. Your sexuality is something that you should be very proud of, and it’s not something you should let in any way define who you are, especially when it comes to living your life.”
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– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.