Let's take the gay to Sochi for the Winter Olympics

A coach says a boycott of the Games because of Russia's anti-gay laws won't work. Instead, all athletes should show the world they stand with their LGBT counterparts.

By Charley Sullivan


The increased focus on recent anti-gay legislation and persecution in Russia, and calls for some form of action against them in the context of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are my perfect storm.

I’m a college coach who has sent athletes to each of the past three summer Olympic Games, and has two actively training for the next quadrenium. I’m also a doctoral candidate in history, writing a dissertation on gender, sexuality, autocratic states and mass violence in the 20th century. And I’m an openly gay Quaker with a strong set of values about social justice.

I am conflicted about what needs to happen in response to the rising official and popular homophobia in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Sochi Games. But I know that action, whatever that may be, is needed. And it is needed now.

The athletes are front and center in my thoughts. Thanks to endless Olympic profiles dotting coverage of the Games, we all know how hard athletes hoping to compete in Olympic Games must train. For athletes hoping to compete in Russia next February, this period six months out from the Games is critical.

Next week, US bobsled athletes will take part in “push championships” that will help determine who gets invited to join the national team from which Olympic lineups will be formed. Given the periodization of training for sports such as speed skating and Nordic skiing, those athletes are in heavy volume phases that exact both physical and emotional loads. Figure skaters are doing the hard work of solidifying new tricks and building stamina for their long programs.

Six months before Games—three to four months out of World Cup competitions, five months out of Olympic trials—is a bad time for athletes to hear rumblings about calls for Olympic boycotts. They have other things to focus on.

For LGBT athletes taking their shots at an Olympic berth, and potentially for their straight-ally teammates, coaches and support staff, there are additional concerns and pressures. Athletes, their families and friends might want to know whether the US Olympic Committee or their national sport federations are inquiring about their safety in Sochi.

In sports where selection can be political, or where team chemistry is important, however, athletes are often loathe to make themselves an issue. Many gay, lesbian and bisexual elite athletes will, understandably, therefore, choose to just keep quiet when their own “issue” gets increasingly hot. Instead of asking the national team coaches, high performance managers and executive directors what might (or might not) be transpiring, they will keep their heads down and keep training. Too much is at stake.

That critical voices in the discussions about potential boycott of Sochi—those of gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes aiming to compete there—will be largely absent from the debate should not be surprising then. In general, the outspoken voices will either be gay activists who may have little knowledge of elite athletics, or straight athletes and officials who may have scant knowledge of LGBT issues.

It is vital, therefore, that US sport leaders—the USOC and the heads of the eight winter sport national federations (Biathlon, Bobsled and Skeleton, Curling, Figure Skating, Hockey, Luge, Ski and Snowboard, and Speedskating)—take a forthright stand on principal.

Now. So that athletes can worry about training.

Our athletic leadership should take three steps immediately to make sure that Games are a place where all athletes are able to give their best effort without fear of persecution or arrest.

Reaffirm to their athletes, coaches and staffs that they are addressing these issues in a proactive and pressuring manner with their international federations, the Russian government and the Sochi 2014 organizers.

Simultaneously, reach out publicly to our diplomats and politicians to ask them to seek clear, public assurances from the Russians that any gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender athletes and their allies at the Games will not be subject to discrimination or harassment.

And contact their international colleagues and counterparts, particularly in Canada, Latin America, East Asia and the European Union who comprise the majority of participants at the Winter Games, to build a coalition within the Olympic family that will not tolerate discrimination in any form at the Sochi Games.

As importantly, something also needs to be done for my queer Russian brothers and sisters. Now. So they can just go on living.

I don’t agree, as Harvey Fierstein suggested in The New York Times recently, that the “Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott.” I suspect there’s not nearly as much leverage from the Olympics coming to Russia as Harvey, whose work is personally important to me beyond measure, imagines.

Autocratic states that use patriotic nationalist identities to try and consolidate political power do not respond well to outside pressure, particularly on “cultural” matters—think Nazi Germany, as Harvey discusses, or Stalinist Russia, Peron’s Argentina, Idi Amin’s Uganda, Sukarno or Suharto’s Indonesia, China during Mao’s Great Leap Forward or the 2008 Olympics, even Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore.

Harvey is correct when he notes that such states often use internal enemies, including those marked by gender and sexuality—“impure” women have been targets in all the cases I listed above, as have gay men—to distract from economic and political constrictions they face at home.

But they also always create external enemies as well. And these external enemies are constructed as attacking the Father- or Motherland not so much militarily or politically, but culturally.

The Nazis, Stalinists, Peronists and Sukarnoists all railed against and restricted access to both jazz and Hollywood. In their view, these American influences undermined the moral bases of their cultural patrimony, putting their youth and their women in particular at risk.

We must remember that most politics, as the old saying goes, are local. Putin has committed to a cultural and political path based on the renewal of a conservative, religious Russian Orthodox identity invested in obedience to strong centralized power. No amount of external pressure will make him back away from this, particularly if it comes from what he considers to be the weak, effeminate and arrogant west.

The anti-gay laws simply will not be reversed. Making that an international requirement is a non-starter. For Putin to acquiesce would call his significantly promoted masculinity and power into question. Even if the laws were changed, by some miracle, we would still need to keep in mind the possibility of this being temporary and for show, a modern Potemkin Village of tolerance.

So, what are the responsibilities of athletes who are about to be given the world stage for two weeks next February, if any real legal change for gays and lesbians in Russia is off the table?

I feel, strongly, that it is not enough for athletes to simply say that they are just athletes and should not have to concern themselves with these issues. As Harvey says, “there is a price for tolerating intolerance.” Whether they like it or not, if the athletes of the 2014 Winter Games do nothing, they are the ones who will bear the brunt of appearing to support Putin and the legitimacy he and his policies will gain from the Sochi Olympics.

I see two possible paths to mitigate that. Both are flights of fancy, modestly gay proposals if you will. But if you want to dream big, as elite athletes have to, you must both think outside the box and take risks on occasion.

The first path is one of complete disengagement. That is, we who are appalled by the treatment of the Russian gay community but support the goals of athletes training for the Olympics should not call for a boycott the Games. We should call to have them removed from Russia completely.

In this scenario, the International Olympic Committee would immediately begin to make plans to hold the 2014 Winter Games elsewhere.

Yes, six months from now.

The IOC could strip away the pageantry, cancel the excesses and the frou-frou and lose the five-star meals and star-studded parties for dignitaries. As long as they can ensure the rinks, slopes, runs and trails necessary for competition, and enough places for athletes to sleep and eat, the IOC could take the Games away from Russia.

Previous Olympic cities could be asked to step up. Vancouver and Turin have permanent facilities that could support another Games. Lillehammer isn’t that far away from Sochi. Even in Salt Lake City, it’s not illegal to be gay, though one wonders about rewarding the Mormons with this possibility. Albertville, maybe? We could all get gay-married in France now, should we wish.

Yes, contractual issues are at play. But the IOC can argue that the recent legislation significantly changed the conditions under which Russia was granted the Games, rendering the Olympic contracts void.

Having seen the IOC at work up close and personal, I’m not holding my breath on this solution. It’s not their style to ruffle feathers. Additionally, the infamously incestuous members of the IOC are way too busy scratching each other's backs to take bold action on any issue that clearly needs correction. Ask any wrestler you know.

And what would this do for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people in Russia? Not much, I suspect. If anything, a rebuke on the world stage would increase the cultural backlash against them as nationalist Russian passions would turn on them even more strongly than they are now.

So, as seductively bold as it seems, this first proposal is probably out.

The second possible path, then? Let’s take the gay to Sochi.

First, we and our allies should immediately send openly gay diplomats and politicians and, yes, openly gay elite athletes and coaches, traveling on official delegations and under diplomatic immunity, to press this question publicly with the Russians. Just as the U.S. sent black ambassadors to South Africa under apartheid, let’s make the Putin government deal directly with official gays and lesbians — who can talk both politics and sports — on this matter.

Then, after these representatives of non-discriminatory nations wrangle public assurances from the Russian government that the Games will not be a site of anti-gay action or pressure in any way, let every athlete, every coach, every tourist going to Sochi take one of those little rainbow flags with them.

As they walk into the Closing Ceremonies — the one where athletes come into the stadium in a global mix of youthful celebration — let the athletes and the public wave those flags, turning the space into a sea of rainbow. Let every Russian watching television, and every Nigerian, and every Ugandan, and every Iranian too, know that there are people, gay and straight, who will not accept the anti-gay status quo without comment.

I think that many potential Olympians would not only be just fine with this plan, I think it’s something many would embrace. The elite athletes I know are generally a tolerant bunch. At the Olympics, they want to compete against the world’s best, no matter their race, their religion, their nationality. Or their sexual orientation.

Athletes, by their nature, are inclusive. If you can play, as the new saying goes, you can play. If you can ski fast, I want to ski faster. If you can throw a quad toe-loop, I want to throw one that goes higher and travels further. If your skip can hit me with his or her best shot, I want to answer with a better one. This is what gives meaning to the words “Olympic Champion.” You beat the best in the world, no matter who they are, or who they love and sleep with.

So what would this do for gay men and lesbians in Russia and around the world? It would let them know that they are not alone, that the “youth of the world” (to use the Olympic language) have their backs and have noticed what is going on. Rather than taking the focus away from Russia, this would shine a light into the darkness.

So, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I can’t be the only one. I can imagine this actually happening. And wouldn’t it be the best closing ceremonies ever?

But — to turn away from my flights of fancy — for the sake of athletes training today, and of Russians being persecuted today, the time for meaningful action at the highest level is now. Just like the athletes, we have work to get done today, so we can all be ready for the Olympic Games six months from now.

Charley Sullivan is Associate Head Coach of Men’s Rowing and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan. His team is six-time defending American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) national champions, and he is the 2013 ACRA Men’s Assistant Coach of the Year. He was on the staff of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. His academic research focuses on the formation of gender and cultural identities in the 20th century.

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