Like any former track and field athlete, I love watching the drama and story of a track meet unfold. Nothing is more exciting than a surprise ending of a race when the underdog pulls through and wows the sea of screaming fans; it makes the victory that much more emotional.
When I watch races now, I still feel those pre-race jitters, as if that’s me about to get on the line to race. With all the tension in Russia, however, watching the World Championship held in Moscow last week made me nervous as I watched in anticipation of any pro- or anti-LGBT statements that might happen during competition.
If the LGBT is the underdog in the fight toward equality, last week’s performances and political statements during the Moscow give us hope that athletes will continue to be vocal allies for LGBT athletes. It’s been personally meaningful to see track and field athletes putting themselves on the line to speak up for equality, just as my track teammates had done for me when I was in college.
Elite middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds made headlines not only when he took the silver in the 800 meters, but when he dedicated his medal to his gay friends. Symmonds stated: "As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality … If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested."
Earlier this month, Symmonds wrote a piece for Runner’s World, and stated that he believed athletes should not be political about the Russia situation. When I saw this, I tweeted a response to Nick. As a former 800-meter runner myself, I figured I had an obligation to let him know, as an out athlete, that I disagreed with us athletes taking an apolitical stance.
"@AnnaLinaAagenes: @runnersworld @NickSymmonds Yet since not all players are treated equally, it does involve politics to keep athletes safe #Russia #Olympics"
In addition to Symmonds bold statements and change of heart, two athletes, Swedish high-jumper Emma Green Tergaro and Moa Hjelmer, painted their fingernails rainbow during in Moscow. This sign of support for the LGBT community was proof that a small thing, even nail polish color, can be a political statement. Though Green Tergaro was forced to repaint her nails (she chose red, she said, for "love"), these actions of civil disobedience are examples of the vocal support by athletes leading up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
I could not be prouder of the athletes from around the world who have taken a stance against LGBT discrimination in sports despite risking a backlash by the Russian government and their sports' governing bodies. As a former Division I track and field athlete, the past few days have been especially moving.
The world is calling on Russia to be accepting, and it’s coming from the generation of out athletes and allies. From my vantage point as one of the co-founders GO! Athletes (Generation Out! Athletes) and a track athlete, I could not be more excited and hopeful that LGBT athletes can and will compete in Sochi. Thank you to those allies who have been outspoken and helped us.
Anna Aagenes is Executive Director of GO! Athletes.