How the Olympics, set for China, are a little like a gay pride parade.

By Ryan Quinn

The Olympic Games are a uniquely human phenomenon — an extravagant exercise in cultural diversity, commerce, politics, road construction, and the idealistic premise of sport: let the best man win. But an unusual suspense marks the days before the Summer Olympics of 2008, a suspense heightened by the friction of two uniquely human emotions: cynicism and curiosity. Why all the commotion? Maybe you’ve heard. For the first time in the 112-year history of the modern Olympics, the Games of the XXIX Olympiad are coming to China.

It’s easy to gaze ahead 12 time zones to Beijing with a cynical eye. The human rights protests, awkward global politics, over-commercialization, performance-enhancing drugs — the sheer extravagance of the event contrasted with people elsewhere around the globe struggling daily with violence and poverty. But what these Games stand out for, even before they’ve begun, are the many ways in which they might truly be remarkable. The Olympics, as always, are about the athletes, but not since the end of the Cold War has an Olympic Games been so important to the world. As the beleaguered torch winds its way toward the Bird’s Nest stadium for Aug. 8 Opening Ceremonies, the stage is set for a show that has become compelling on an array of human levels — and not only for each nation’s most elite athletes.

Why we watch

Jamaica’s Maurcie Smith is a medal favorite in the decathlon. (Photo by Finneye for Outsports)

The Olympics are a Mecca for Other Sports. They are a celebration of lives and cultures otherwise accustomed to obscurity. As a cross-country skier, distance runner, triathlete, biathlete, mountain runner and cyclist, I’ve long been an activist for Other Sports.You know, the sports that don’t get their own drop down menu on The sports that aren’t mainstream enough to be shown regularly on TV, or, if they are shown, can be found only on a special channel. Some of these sports feature the world’s fittest athletes; some of them are utterly ridiculous. In a way, the Olympics are a little like a gay pride parade. For two weeks mainstream cultures around the world don’t just tolerate Other Sports, but they embrace them, celebrate them, and most importantly, accept them for what they are. Maybe we love the Olympics because they’re a little bit gay.
Or are they? As the Olympics expand on all fronts — television coverage, ad revenue, the number of athletes, events and countries — progress appears to have stumbled in at least one area. Four years ago, Outsports documented 11 openly gay and lesbian Olympians in Athens. To date, Outsports is only aware of five publicly gay Olympians heading to Beijing, none from the U.S. — Matthew Micham (Australia, diving), Judith Arndt (Germany, cycling), Imke Duplitzer (Germany, fencing) and Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg (Norway, handball and a lesbian couple). As a caveat, there may be others known to be gay or lesbian within their sport but not out publicly.
This is both surprising and disheartening. While it’s not news to anyone that there are no openly gay professional athletes in the mainstream big league sports, gays who compete in the Other Sports have long been more comfortable being themselves.

For years Outsports has covered high school, college and elite level athletes who have come out before and during the height of our athletic careers, including a recent surge of swimmers, three of who competed in the Olympic trials last month. But whither the gay Olympians of 2008? The ancient Greeks would be appalled (and we haven’t even started talking about the unsightly fad of swimsuits that cover up more skin than ever before).

Something in the air

The IOC has insisted always that cities — not countries — host the Olympics. But 2008 is undeniably about China. Unlike Athens, whose theme leaned predictably on Olympic history, Beijing has become a gala of global ideology. From the China-bashing now fashionable in the Western media to the regional tensions China has at each corner of its borders — Nepal, Hong Kong, Taiwan — China’s role in the world has rarely been on the minds of so many.

Most conspicuous as the opening ceremonies draw near is the giant question mark looming over the host city. You don’t need a sappy NBC montage to set the stage for these Olympics. The suspense is real. It’s real because no one really knows what is going to happen — not the journalists, not the athletes, not the citizens of China who are about to be exposed to more outside influences in the next two weeks then they have been in the last four decades. Not the dignitaries like Presidents Bush and Sarkozy (though not British Prime Minister Gordon Brown) who are heading to the Opening Ceremonies with reluctance and real curiosity. Not the IOC, which was either visionary, egotistical or stupid when it awarded Beijing these Olympics seven years ago. And, perhaps least of all, China’s leaders, whose heavy-handed government has meticulously planned out every last detail; even those they’re about to find are beyond their control.

Beijing may always have seemed suited to pull off the logistical feat of hosting a modern Summer Olympic Games. They have their government’s blank check and the manpower to handle several massive construction projects simultaneously. But Beijing is about to meet the other face of the Olympic Games: the international contingent of athletes, journalists and fans who are arriving in their country, an estimated 400,000 foreigners, many of whom bring with them not only dreams of Olympic glory, but also cameras, Internet access, cynicism and an array of worrisome habits formed in homelands that value freedoms of speech and the press.

The modern Olympics are an unscripted party, not a tightly run stage show. Is China ready to open its doors to all that? We’re about to find out. Just as the Olympics are bigger than any one athlete, they are bigger than the people who attempt to shape them in their own image. Just ask Adolf Hitler, who sat powerlessly in his box seat in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium while a conspicuously non-Aryan Jesse Owens won four gold medals on the track below.

I never thought I’d live to see this

I’m accustomed to spending vast amounts of vitriolic energy complaining about what NBC is NOT showing me because they’ve produced so many sentimental profiles about athletes who have overcome one tragedy or another. So when NBC unveiled its plans for Beijing I had a terrifying moment of paranoia: had head of sports Dick Ebersol somehow been listening?

Despite the inconvenient time difference (12 hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast and 15 ahead of the West Coast) , it appears we will have access to nearly every event, live and uninterrupted. NBC shelled out $900 million for the rights to broadcast the Olympics and have plans, using both their bevy of television networks and the Internet, to receive $1 billion in ad revenue from the 3,600 hours of coverage they have planned. Yes, that’s thirty-six hundred hours of coverage, which is equal to more than nine days of coverage every day for two weeks! I mean, why did it take so long for someone to think of this? Dick, if you’re listening, thank you. This time I won’t complain. I’ll be too busy watching the badminton mixed doubles final on my computer in bed.


It’s very possible, despite the geopolitical context, that the athletes themselves will have been the main story at the close of the Games in two weeks time. Michael Phelps is already one of the greatest swimmers of all time and may only be entering the peak of his career. He’ll take to the pool with as many as eight gold medals on the line. Many more athletes — too many to name here — are only days away from capturing their Olympic moment.

The athletes are mesmerizing not only because of their performances, but also because of the stage they compete on. The Olympic Games. These words represent something that has overcome World Wars, terrorist attacks, bribery and doping scandals, boycotts and commercialization. The truth is that because the Olympics are a human experiment, the Olympic ideal is as flexible as the Olympians who compete in them. The world evolves, the sports evolve, and so too does the role of the Olympics.

Dozens of world records have fallen in the last few months, and we’ll see many more fall in two weeks time. But keep this in mind: In 112 years, the world record in the 100-meter freestyle swim has improved from 1:05.6 to 47.5 sec. The marathon world record has dropped from 2:58:50 to 2:04:26. Meanwhile we’ve initiated woman’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, globalization, and the inventions of the airplane, television and Internet. While the athletes get swifter, higher, stronger, the world has gotten better. Here’s to Beijing adding two more weeks of betterment to that legacy.

Ryan Quinn is a writer living in New York City. Read his story on coming out as a collegiate athlete.

Don't forget to share: