Should anti-gay laws affect the Winter Games?
In 1936 it was the Nazis. In 1980, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 1984 brought retaliation for ’80. This year, it’s treatment of gays. Another year, another Olympic boycott threat.
As Russia criminalizes LGBT people — a new law threatens jail for anyone even acknowledging gay people on the Internet or in a classroom — a broad swath of people has called for a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi, which begin on Feb. 7. The list of boycott advocates includes current and former athletes, human rights organizations and Russian activists. A fiery op-ed piece in the New York Times by Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein helped fan the flames.
But support for a boycott isn’t universal. And many opposed to it are gay themselves.
Out American figure skater Johnny Weir calls Russia’s anti-gay laws “heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions.” However, he says, “there isn’t a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics.”
Weir has a special dog in this fight: He is married to a Russian man.
John Carlos agrees. He too has an intriguing perspective. In 1968 — after taking bronze in the 200-meter race at Mexico City — Carlos and gold medal winner Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists during the American national anthem. Smith described the act as a “human rights salute,” not the Black Power gesture it was assumed to be. But the overtly political act has resonated since then.
“If you stay home, your message stays home with you. If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known,” Carlos says. “Don’t let your message be buried and don’t bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we’d never have been heard from again.”
Also on the anti-boycott bandwagon: Cyd Zeigler. The co-founder of Outsports.com, the Internet’s premier LGBT sports website. Zeigler is less concerned with politics than with the Olympics ideal.
“No athlete good enough to compete in the Olympics should ever be told by her country that she cannot fulfill her lifelong dream,” he writes. “The Olympics aren’t about politics; they’re about putting politics aside and competing in friendship. The LGBT community needs to go after politicians and government officials to affect change in Russia and leave the future of Olympic athletes alone.”
Zeigler says that most athletes get only one shot to compete in the Games. He cites openly gay gymnast Josh Dixon, who has worked for over a decade to attain his dream. Dixon told the Washington Blade that having that work go for naught would be “gut-wrenching.”
Hockey plays a huge role in the Winter Games and it’s a hugely popular sport in Russia. And the National Hockey League has been in the forefront of supporting LGBT issues — it has partnered with the You Can Play project — and some of its public service announcements could be considered criminal offenses in Russia.
Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews told the Chicago Tribune, “A lot of athletes have expressed their thoughts (about the laws), and they’re pretty much all the same … in that there’s a disrespect for those attitudes and that narrow-mindedness. As athletes, we can express our feelings, and we don’t have to stand for that train of thought at all. By no means are we standing up for those laws by competing at the Olympics.”
Other straight allies are equally vocal. “I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and people who are that intolerant and that ignorant,” five-time Olympic medal skier Bode Miller told the Washington Post. “But it’s not the first time; we’ve been dealing with human rights issues probably since there were humans.”
Zeigler has a solution. “Instead of walking away, LGBT athletes and their nations should march into Sochi holding their heads high.”
Harking back to 1936, when the U.S. resisted pressure to boycott the Berlin Games, Zeigler recalls Jesse Owens, the black athlete who beat Hitler’s master race at his own game on his own track. “We can do the same thing in Sochi,” Zeigler urges. “Want to make the Olympics a gay spectacle? Beat the Russians on their own track. Help out LGBT athletes get onto the podium. The power of the community isn’t to force governments to play politics but to lift up our brightest stars and help them, like Owens, deliver our message for us. You don’t win in sports by walking away. You win by competing.”
Gold medal-winning bobsledder Steven Holcomb agrees. “I think we should show up — pardon my French — and kick their asses and take names and go from there. That’d be such a bigger statement, in my mind.”
— Dan Woog
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 13, 2013.