Nick Symmonds, 30, is a two-time Olympic runner in the 800 meters, finishing fifth in the 2012 London Games. He made international news this past August after winning the silver medal at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow, then dedicating his medal to his gay fans as a way to protest Russia's new anti-gay laws.
Symmonds began the year by posting a photo of himself training naked as a clever way to announce he was getting a new apparel sponsor, Brooks Running Company. Active on social media, Symmonds is engaging and articulate, with a wide range of interests. I spoke with him via Skype while he was in Mexico training for the upcoming indoor track season, which starts Feb. 1. I was focused on why he has become such an outspoken champion of gay rights.
Outsports: Describe what in your life made you care about LGBT issues?
Nick Symmonds: I grew up in Boise, Idado, and Idaho's a very conservative state, though Boise may be 50-50 conservatives and liberals. My home was more of an independent, maybe left-leaning home, but really encouraged open discussion. As [gay rights] became more and more an issue, my family and I had discussions about how we felt about this.
For me, it's not that I'm so pro-gay marriage. I'm more pro-equality in the eyes of the government. I would be fine if the government said that gay people cannot marry, but in that case they have to say that heterosexuals can't marry either. I don't care how they write the law, it just needs to be equal.
I've had gay friends growing up. Going to a Catholic high school in Boise, of course my gay friends weren't out necessarily. As I got to college [Willamette University in Oregon] and moved to more liberal Oregon, I had many out gay friends. They've always been good friends of mine. Gay and straight people are all the same, so why they would they be treated differently in the eyes of the government, I never understood.
Outsports: You also spoke out against the Boy Scouts of America and their stand on gay scouts and scout leaders. Why the interest?
Nick Symmonds: It really started when I was reading an article on how the Boy Scouts of America were discriminating against gay scouts and leaders and as an Eagle Scout I was really shocked. It's really an organization that talks about diversity and equality and tries to prepare young men to enter the real world. I was so appalled they would teach young scouts that discriminating against people is an acceptable practice. I originally put a tweet out that said as an Eagle Scout from Troop 94, I would not be supporting the Boy Scouts of America until they came into the 21st Century and stopped discriminating.
Outsports: They are now allowing young gay scouts, but you can't be a scout leader and be openly gay.
Nick Symmonds: I think that's absurd. It's basically saying, we'll welcome you until your 18th birthday and then we don't want you any more. Explain to me why any young scout is going to want to be part of a community that's going to kick them out when they turn 18? I think that is too little and I still won't support the Boy Scouts of America until they get rid of their discriminatory practices.
Outsports: After you won the silver medal in Moscow, you publicly dedicated your medal to to gay fans. Yet days before, you wrote that even though you opposed Russia's anti-gay laws, you would remain silent out of courtesy. What changed your mind about speaking out?
Nick Symmonds: A couple of factors went into that. Originally I was focused on winning a medal. That was my job. That's what I trained for and that's what I was in Russia to do. I also feel that in an ideal world, we'd be able to just put our differences aside and compete at these international competitions for the love of sport and pride. But when I was out in Russia and saw firsthand how gays were treated, in the streets and being shoved to the ground just for kissing one another or holding hands, the amount of hatred and intolerance that was actually out there, I said this is just so wrong. Added to that was the medal around my neck, knowing I had taken care of the job I was there to do, I felt that now was the time to make this medal mean more than just running around in circles twice really fast. It needs to be about bringing some awareness to the intolerance I had seen out there.
Outsports: What had you seen? Had you seen news reports or did you see anything personally?
Nick Symmonds: I spoke with some gay Russians there who said that in their own experience, the way they are being treated currently is worse than the way they were treated under communist rule, which I think is telling. But along with that, I had seen this report from CNN, which was just etched in my mind, and still is, of two girls just kissing in the street at a demonstration and an angry man comes in and literally shoves them to both to the asphalt. And I was thinking, how could two people kissing, something as simple and beautiful as that, cause another person to become so angry he would just shove them to the ground? I said then, that if I could do anything, or say something that would make this guy as mad as I was, that's what I wanted to do.
Outsports: What media outlet did you make your statement to?
Nick Symmonds: After I had the medal, I was basically going through what we call the mix zone, underneath the stadium, where there are reporters from all around the world, and I believe it was a local Russian publication that asked me [the question]. I believe I said in my original blog for "Runner's World" that when I defeated a Russian on the track, I would silently dedicate it to my gay friends back home. And the reporter asked, 'Now that you have the medal, do you wish to remain silent still?' I said no, what I'd like to do is dedicate this medal to all my gay and lesbian friends back home.
I thought it was something that would run in a small publication in Russia and stir up a little bit of controversy there, but I never thought the international media would pick up on it quite so heavily.
Outsports: What was the reaction you received from LGBT people?
Nick Symmonds: Phenomenally supportive. After I said I was going to remain silent while I competed, I received some negative feedback saying that I wasn't a true supporter and that if I really cared about LGBT rights, I would protest or boycott. I've always been against a boycott. I think that we can find ways to have our voices heard and still get our jobs done as professional athletes.
After I came out and protested the anti-gay propaganda laws of Russia, everyone said thank you for taking a stand. I was overwhelmed by the amount of positive support I received.
Outsports: You are of a generation where gay rights are widely accepted, including same-sex marriage. Yet at the 2012 London Games, only 23 athletes were openly gay or lesbian, three of them men. Why do you think gay athletes do not come out publicly at greater numbers in sports?
Nick Symmonds: The sporting field is still a field where being openly gay or supporting gay rights is still somewhat taboo.
Also, many athletes, believe it or not, do cherish their privacy. Those that are gay and refrain from sharing it publicly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they're afraid of ostracizing fans or potentially losing sponsors. Many athletes have sponsors that are run by conservatives and the sponsors could pull out if they felt they had differing views on politics, especially gay marriage.
Outsports: What about track and field? Do you think it would be accepting of openly gay competitors?
Nick Symmonds: Just like any demographic, there will be people that accept it and people that reject it. If someone were to come out as openly gay in the sport of track and field, I think certainly among the younger generation there will be overwhelming support for it. Maybe in other generations and other demographics it might not be as supported. That's how we're going to continue to advance this issue is by understanding that God makes people in a lot of different shapes and forms and some of them play sports really well too. Straight people can play sports well, gay people can play sports well. Your sexual orientation really has little bearing in how you're going to do on the track and on the field.
Outsports: Have you known any gay track athletes?
Nick Symmonds: I do know a few, some of who identity as bisexual. In track and field, I can certainly think of half a dozen, at least, that I know would identify as gay or bisexual.
Outsports: Have you ever talked to any of them personally about their sexual orientation?
Nick Symmonds: Some of them I have, some of them are very proud about it. Others are proud but maybe more private about it. I think that any person who identifies as gay or bisexual or transgender is going to always thread lightly with people that they don't know very well who might be judgmental. Often they feel comfortable talking to me about their orientation because they know that I have no issue no matter how they identify, but they also know I'll be private and confidential about it.
Outsports: What advice would you give an athlete in Sochi who wishes to register opposition to Russia's anti-gay laws without running afoul of IOC rules?
Nick Symmonds: The most conservative thing I can say is to support Athlete Ally. What they're trying to say in their Principle 6 campaign is that the IOC has in their charter that no form of discrimination will be tolerated, and essentially Russia is tolerating a form of discrimination. They're not calling for a boycott, they're calling on the IOC to enforce that principle.
That's a very tame way to protest the Russian laws. Something else that I've suggested is that athletes who are themselves very much pro-gay rights come together and find a respectful yet effective way to convey their disgust with those laws. It is against the law to demonstrate or even to wave a rainbow flag, but I tell you, if 5,000 athletes wave a rainbow flag, I'd like to see the Russian government do anything about it.
I think Sochi is going to be very exciting for a lot of reasons, not just the incredible athletic performances but also this subject is going to define Sochi 2014. From the athletes speaking out to the way Russia handles it, I'm almost more excited for the political theater than the actual athletic performances.
Outsports: If there is a young gay track and field person reading this, and they wanted to know if their sport and their sexual orientation were compatible, what would you say to them?
Nick Symmonds: I would say that being openly gay in track and field is going to be a tough road at times. But we need people to bravely come out and show people that just because you're gay doesn't mean you can't run fast. I look to these other sports where people have come out, like basketball and rugby and football and certainly there is always going to be some bigotry and people saying negative comments. But ultimately the biggest thing we can do is have role models who are gay in the sports we like to look up to.
Symmonds can be followed on Twitter and Instagram.
Prior to signing on with Brooks, Symmonds posted a nude photo of himself, writing: "For the first time in 7 years I am without an apparel sponsor. Thus I am forced to workout in the nude until a company comes to the rescue." Here is the photo, courtesy of L.A.-based photographer Stephen Wayda (click image for larger view):