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With only 7 openly gay athletes in Sochi, those in closet are on the wrong side of history

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If the potential for distraction is the reason the vast majority of GLBT Olympians remain closeted, it’s time for the rest of us to realize that elite athletes are terrible role models for the GLBT community.

There are 5 Olympic rings and 6 openly gay Winter Olympians
There are 5 Olympic rings and 6 openly gay Winter Olympians
Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

An estimated 2,500 athletes will participate in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia,  and we know of only seven of them who are openly gay.

Of the seven, all are women and none are American:

  • Ireen Wüst (a Dutch speed skater who won gold medals in both the Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010 Olympics).
  • Sanne van Kerkhof (a Dutch short track speedskater, who competed in 2010).
  • Cherly Maas (Dutch snowboarder, Torino 2006).
  • Barbara Jezeršek (Slovenia cross country skier, Vancouver 2010).
  • Anatasia Bucsis (Canadian speed skater, Vancouver 2010).
  • Belle Brockhoff (Australia snowboarder, first Olympics).
  • Daniela Iraschko-Stolz (Austrian ski jumper who will compete in her first Olympics, as this is the first time the Olympic Games have allowed women to compete in the sport.)

Bucsis and Brockhoff both came out recently in protest of Russia’s now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law. There would have been one openly gay man competing in Sochi — New Zealand short track speed skater Blake Skjellerup — but he missed qualifying by one slot


Seven out athletes — or 0.28% — is an improbably low number. Either GLBT athletes are uniquely bad at winter sports, or dozens — perhaps a hundred or more— must be competing in Sochi while in the closet. In the past, it was easier to explain away why an athlete, focused on his or her sport, would shy away from the perceived (if exaggerated) distractions of being openly gay in an unwelcoming world.

But now it seems more likely that the tipping point for acceptance of gays — at least in Western culture — occurred during the past four years. Since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, here is just a partial list of major breakthroughs for GLBT acceptance:

  • The first active, high-profile athletes have come out, including Jason Collins (NBA basketball), Robbie Rogers (MLS soccer), and Tom Daley, the British diver who came out as being in a relationship with a man.
  • Two thirds of the 2006 U.S. men’s Olympic figure skating team effectively came out and married their partners — Johnny Weir married in late 2011, Matthew Savoie married in 2012 (neither were out while competing in an Olympics).
  • Active, high-profile straight allies have become very vocal in their support of GLBT rights, including NFL players like Chris Kluwe and middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds, who protested the anti-gay Russian law on Russian soil by dedicating his silver medal at the World Championships in Moscow last August to his gay friends back home.
  • President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to openly endorse marriage equality — a decision, one can assume, was carefully calculated to mirror the views of the American electorate. Dozens of Congressmen and Congresswomen, governors, and other national politicians from both political parties have since gone on the record in support of marriage equality.
  • The U.S. military ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA was struck down.
  • Openly gay athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow have been selected to represent the U.S. in Sochi during the Olympics. And Brian Boitano, who was also selected, used the occasion to come out publicly for the first time. "I can’t go to Sochi and not make this official," he told the New York Times. "I need to get past my comfort zone of being a private guy like I’ve been my whole life."
  • And finally, gay marriage has been legalized in 18 states (the tally was at only four prior to 2010) including, in the last two months alone, pro-equality rulings in Utah and Oklahoma, states not known for their leadership on gay rights.

After reviewing a list like this, you have to wonder whether there is any good reason for anyone to be in the closet anymore. True, of the above-mentioned people, only Collins, Rogers, and Daley are still competing in their sports, and thus still have their careers "at stake." But the point is, what more needs to happen before Winter Olympians — none of whom will ever be as high profile as Daley, for example —will stop feeling as though being out is some sort of threat to their athletic performance? Are they waiting for the flag-waving support of Vladimir Putin himself?

To be clear, I don’t expect and won’t advocate for an athlete to come out now, in the immediate run-up to the biggest competition of his or her life. But Winter Olympians spend 3.8 years out of every 4 very far from the spotlight; they have plenty of opportunity to come out the way Daley did, during his off-season and on his own terms. This was also how I came out — 13 years ago, in Utah — while competing at the U.S. national and NCAA Division I level in cross-country skiing. My two best years of results occurred immediately following my coming out to my teammates, with whom I won an NCAA National Championship. As I remember, the distractions of coming out were at worst manageable; at best, I realized that the fear and isolation of being in the closet had a negative effect on both my personal life and my skiing, both of which improved after coming out.

Given the present cultural climate, to have so few out athletes in Sochi marks a sad milestone. If the first steps toward GLBT rights and acceptance in the sports world were taken decades ago by pioneers like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, both of whom came out ahead of their time, there will certainly be gay athletes in Sochi about which it could now be said that they are behind their time.

Perhaps we, from the outside looking in, shouldn’t blame them. There are, after all, a few key reasons why an Olympian would delay coming out. A former Winter Olympian and friend of mine articulated these reasons very well in post four years ago during the Vancouver Games. His thoughts are worth reading again in full, but they boil down to the notion that everything about an elite athlete’s life is fine-tuned to maximize their athletic performance and thus there is no material gain to be had from coming out. Everything — from where an athlete lives, to what she eats, to who he dates (if he dates at all) — is all designed with performance in mind. If something poses even a potential distraction, it is brushed aside.

Fair enough, but at some point won’t the unique and inhospitable distractions of life in the closet start to seem worse than just being out in a world that, well, doesn’t really care?

If the potential for distraction is the reason the vast majority of GLBT Olympians remain closeted, it’s time for the rest of us to realize that elite athletes are terrible role models for the GLBT community. No one, of course, is obliged to be a role model for anyone else, and you might expect a few athletes to shy away from such a responsibility. But nearly all of them? It’s not a flattering record. Especially for the men. Since Billie Jean King and Navratilova, female athletes have dominated the battle of the sexes when it comes to coming out. In addition to the four out woman who will compete in Sochi, 20 of the 23 out athletes during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London were also women.

For perspective, imagine the distractions Jesse Owens faced when he marched into the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and won four gold medals with Adolf Hitler watching from the stands. If Owens had been able to, might he have kept his African-American heritage a secret so as to avoid any distraction that being black in 1930s America—not to mention Nazi Germany—would have caused, potentially hampering his athletic performance? It feels disrespectful even to ask that question. And in the case of Owens, we’ll never know. But that seems to be precisely what the vast majority of gay athletes are doing today. With much less at stake than Owens ever had, the controlled, if myopic, internal pressures of being in the closet seem preferable to the hypothetical distractions of being out.

This is a shame. And I don’t mean that it’s shameful to be closeted. Coming out is a personal decision. No, it’s a shame because of what these athletes are missing out on. These are talented young athletes who are voluntarily opting out of being themselves during a period of their life they will never get back. I can’t help but think a lot of them are going to regret it. Instead of seeing the upsides of a supportive community, or the comfort of following the examples of Collins, Rogers, and Daley (all of whom have more at stake, in financial terms, than Winter Olympic athletes, and who all had positive experiences coming out), or the power of embracing the freedom to be themselves, today’s gay Olympians see only a hypothetically homophobic skating judge or some media attention that might slow them down a fraction of a second.

Would a few off-season stories about who an athlete is dating (as if there’s even a market for this sort of piece in a non-Olympic year) really inhibit their performance? I would have thought to give the mental toughness of an Olympic athlete more credit than that. Perhaps I’m just beating my head against the wall by asking such questions. Meanwhile, the broader culture has progressed to the point where you can picture General Mills clamoring for a gay athlete to put on the Wheaties box. And, certainly, any sponsor who dared drop an Olympic athlete for coming out would be pilloried by the media, fans, and other supporters in the GLBT community and beyond.

I’ll stop now. I’ve argued my point. And that point is not that athletes could or should be out. That’s plainly obvious. My point is: elite athletes may inspire us with their athletic performances, but we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for them to be GLBT role models. Someday they’ll catch up.

Ryan Quinn won an NCAA Division I National Championship while on the University of Utah ski team. He is the author of "The Fall: A Novel", and lives in Los Angeles. For more, visit www.ryanquinnbooks.com.


Note: The original story said there were four openly gay athletes. The story has been updated to reflect new information. Hat tip to the Advocate.