Competitive Nordic skiing is a small world. Everyone is at least an acquaintance of everyone else, if not a close friend or significant other (or some combination of both). So it’s no surprise that gay skiers, few as they may be, tend to seek each other out for camaraderie or support.
After I came out in college, while competing as an NCAA Division I cross-country skier, I began to hear from other gay college skiers — some out, some not, and some who were a little of both. One of those guys, Brian Olsen, rose to a level a little higher than the rest of us, competing on biathlon’s World Cup circuit and, in 2006, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Biathlon Team in Torino, Italy.
Brian is currently in Sochi, Russia, and he and I conducted the following interview over e-mail. In it he articulates the nuances of coming out in elite sport and the relationship between sport and human rights. He is, in fact, the first publicly gay male Winter Olympian from the United States who is not a figure skater — but that, he says, is not the point.
Quinn: Four years ago, you wrote a piece that we posted on Outsports that articulated why there are so few out Olympians— essentially that they are too focused on their sport to invite the distractions of coming out. I revisited this topic on the eve of these Games, and my contention is that while it may be true for an athlete to want to avoid distractions, the rest of Western society has progressed so rapidly that it’s not really a distraction anymore. In fact, in just the two weeks since I wrote that article, an NFL prospect from the South, Michael Sam, has come out. Are the Winter Olympics more homophobic than the NFL?
Olsen: The facts would suggest that something is wrong: only seven out LGBT athletes competing here in Sochi, right, and no males? That is a very small percentage. Something must be done, one might say. And I agree. Sport does need to become more inclusive, whether it’s the Olympics, the NFL, or even high school sports.
But first off, what does it mean to be "out?" How many gays and lesbians are out to more than 10,000 people? That’s the exposure even the least competitive athlete in the obscurest of sports competing here has. Is it fair to expect individuals to tell the entire world they’re gay? Coming out was a really hard process for me internally six years ago, and I had supportive family and friends. It’s hard for anyone. But to do so in a public way that could potentially result in the entire world questioning the identity you’ve just come to barely accept … that is something far more difficult and courageous than simply coming out to your friends, family, and co-workers.
Quinn: What was your coming-out process like?
Why we failed in Sochi
Our LGBT efforts around the Olympics did have some positive developments, but we ultimately failed LGBT Russians because we didn't risk anything the way many of them risk every day.
Olsen: I met a guy in 2006 that made me re-think things, but it took me a while to come to terms with it, while at the same time training full-time. I actually don’t remember exactly how it happened now, but I didn’t really tell anyone until my family and friends in 2008.
Ultimately, "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" made the decision for me: in 2007, I ended up enlisting in the Army and its sports program to make a living and continue my dream. I couldn’t come out publicly without the risk of being kicked out and losing everything. So that delayed the process.
A year later, I was ready for a new challenge away from sport, and determined that the athlete lifestyle just wasn’t going to allow me to figure myself out, or even have a sustainable relationship once I did. Looking back, it was the right choice for me in that I’ve since pursued many other things in my life that have made me a better person. But I think it’s a shame that part of the reason I gave up my passion was because of my sexuality. I don’t want other athletes to have that enter into their decision-making process.
Quinn: You and I have talked before about what it means to be "out." Coming out used to be more black and white, I think, because it used to be bigger "news." Do you agree with that? How would you describe yourself?
Olsen: I’m out. My family and friends all know. It’s not something I hide, but at the same time, it’s not something I broadcast. When it's relevant in a conversation, I don't skip a beat mentioning it. It’s an important part of who I am and I don’t have the energy any more to hide who I am. But at the same time, I grew up as a biathlete, and the culture of my sport is one that discourages opportunism and publicity.
The only hesitation I’ve had since telling all of my friends and family in 2008 has been in the National Guard. I took a platoon of soldiers in 2011 and knew before I volunteered for the assignment that we were headed to Afghanistan in 18 months. I never made an announcement because I felt that there was some risk it could in a small way erode the trust my soldiers placed in me, and that in turn could have a material impact on all of us accomplishing our missions and coming home safely. Those were the two most important things to me as a leader. Since I was single, being gay didn’t seem relevant. If I was leaving behind a guy at home, I certainly would have considered a different course of action, but then again introducing a boyfriend is much different than standing in front of your guys and giving a coming out speech.
Quinn: What advice would you offer current athletes?
Olsen: What I’d say to other athletes is that you don’t have to come out to the public immediately, or at all. Just because there are only seven out LGBT Olympians competing in Sochi, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t athletes here who are fully open about their identity to their friends and family, but enjoy some discretion when it comes to those outside their circle.
Being out to your friends, family, and team will make you a better athlete. As I said, once I told them, my former teammates didn’t care. My former sponsors didn’t care. But the mental energy I spent thinking about whether or not I was gay, the distraction of watching carefully everything that I said, that limited my abilities and it hampered my relationships with teammates.
I think the fear many athletes have is that the public conversation will revolve more around their sexuality than their athletic performances … it’s certainly the perception I had when I was competing … I didn’t want to be known as the gay biathlete. My dream was to have the perfect race, to push my limits, to compete well on the World Cup and at the Olympic Games. My identity was as an athlete, and it’s for my results and sportsmanship I wanted to be known.
Quinn: Coming out is certainly personal. But it’s also true that more and more college athletes—and now, finally, pro athletes— are coming out. And yet the numbers remain relatively small in the Olympics. Is there a reason for this?
Olsen: There’s an important distinction peculiar to gay athletes competing in Olympic sports that I realize I didn't fully explain earlier: our sports are really, really small.
In Olympic sports, you spend months at a time surrounded every hour of the day by people in sport … athletes, coaches, officials, and so forth. You travel to the same places. Have the same routine. For biathlon during the winter, the World Cup travels to a new stadium every week. During the summer, we travel around the world for training camps where all we do is eat, sleep, train, repeat. I didn’t spend a holiday with my family for more than four years while I was competing.
It’s no surprise that most of the relationships for Olympic athletes in many sports are with each other. Not necessarily within their teams, but in their greater sport. These are tiny dating pools. It’s a problem for straight athletes, but when you’re gay, the pool shrinks even more. And if you don’t have anyone to date or anyone around you who knows what it feels like to question your identity, then how do you reach any level of certainty? How do you imagine really a relationship with any permanence?
This is a lot like small towns where gays struggle with the friction between not having anyone to date, but feeling deeply rooted in the friends, family and lifestyle unique to rural places. But whereas you could just move to a city to find friends and relationships, an athlete can’t just move and still pursue the dream. Olympic sports, especially the winter disciplines, are practiced in the mountains, where communities are rural, and of course we’re always traveling. You can’t train for many of the sports being played here in Sochi in New York City or L.A.
So, Olympic sport is different in this sense from pro sports in the U.S. I can’t say whether the Olympics are more homophobic than the NFL —I’ve never played in it, but I can say that the size, geography, and financial structure of our sports present some unique issues for Olympic athletes trying to figure things out.
Quinn: Is homophobia one of those issues in Olympic sport?
Olsen: My point is that there might actually be a lack of gay athletes at the elite level … and that’s simply because we get worn down by juggling our passion for sport and a growing need to figure out who we are. Straight athletes don’t have that baggage. With a lack of gay athletes, out or not, that leads to assumptions that all athletes are straight, and in turn people don’t feel a responsibility to watch what they say and do.
I didn’t retire early because my teammates were homophobic. I did so because I needed to figure myself out, and it just didn’t seem that the focused life I was leading would take me closer to me feeling whole. The dream of an Olympic medal lost its appeal as I became increasingly aware that I didn’t know who I was as a person. I didn’t want to be 30 years old and still wrestling with the issue, even if I were to improve my results on the World Cup.
There’s nothing inherently homophobic in sport, from my experience. None of my former teammates, and now friends, made it an issue when I told them a few years ago. I do think, however, many teams still lack the inclusive atmosphere that someone in my shoes back then would have needed to come out to teammates.
Quinn: What kinds of things would have made it easier to do that?
Olsen: It’s little things said or done frequently although unintentionally that create a non-inclusive atmosphere. Overall, it’s a need for awareness that not everyone is straight, and that the assumption that all of your teammates are straight really influences the conversations you have. I think teams should just assume that one of their teammates is gay.
It’s hard as an athlete to imagine your team embracing, or even just tolerating the news when you come out. That’s why the ally campaign is so important. While the onus is on the gay athlete to go through the process of coming out, it is the responsibility of coaches, sports officials, and even teammates to ensure that the environment in their sports is not directly or overtly homophobic. It’s about tolerance for not just sexuality, but also religion, race, political views, economic background, and anything else that differentiates people from one another.
Most stories I hear about a gay athlete coming out result in the team apologizing for things they said or did, which suddenly now with an out gay teammate they realize were potentially offensive. Just assume from the get-go that you might have a gay teammate. That makes the apologies later on unnecessary.
As part of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Athlete Advisory Council, I’m actually working on an initiative to do this very thing in the Olympic Movement. Many people just don’t know how to discuss this topic in a locker room or on a team. We’d love to hear the experiences of other athletes and their answers to this very question: What could your teammates, coaches, and staff have done differently? What did they do right? We’re compiling these experiences and recommendations for the different sports to help educate. Our goal is to improve these environments so that teams feel more prepared and are more aware of what their closeted teammates are struggling with, and how to be there for them. That makes the whole team more effective, and it’s just the right thing to do.
Quinn: Did you know of any other gay biathletes or other gay Olympians? Or just suspected there were others?
Olsen: I don’t want to fuel any speculation or curiosity, but it’s not many.
Quinn: Much has been made of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law. You’re a lot closer to the impact of all this than the average American gay guy who’s maybe declared on Facebook that he’s boycotting watching the Games or isn’t drinking Stoli vodka for a few weeks. What has it been like to be gay in Russia right now?
Olsen: I honestly haven’t done anything differently here than when I’m at home. I haven’t noticed anything amiss in the "Olympic Bubble" in which I reside. Of course, mine is not a very authoritative perspective on what it’s really like to be gay in Russia. I’ve read the same news articles as everyone else.
Quinn: The Russian laws have put some focus on Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Charter. Rule 50 essentially prohibits all propaganda as well as political, religious, or racial demonstrations at all Olympic venues. Is there real tension over this between the IOC and athletes and/or fans?
Olsen: The IOC is obsessive about protecting the sanctity of Olympic spaces. Even here in the Olympic Village, the IOC went around putting small pieces of tape on any non-Olympic sponsor logo, from paper towel dispensers to appliances. The sleds used for bobsled, luge, and skeleton required duct tape or wrap over their normal World Cup sponsor logos; certainly a heavy move considering success in those sports are determined by aerodynamics and hundredths of seconds.
Many remember the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and the overt symbolism represented on the 200-meter podium by the medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith in support of civil rights for African-Americans. The IOC responded by forcing the U.S. team to send the athletes home. Here in Sochi, the IOC warned the Norwegian cross-country skiing team against wearing black armbands in support of a teammate who had lost a family member.
So in this sense, I don’t feel that the IOC is being homophobic by banning physical displays on the podium or athlete uniforms of anything that would directly or overtly push for gay rights. The IOC uniformly prohibits anything other than the image of sport being on your television screen.
Athletes are definitely frustrated about these limitations, most significantly because Rule 40 reduces our ability to attract sponsors that financially allow us to keep going. And I’m sure many find the rules against issue messaging overbearing, but this is the Olympic Games. It’s not a World Cup or World Championships. There is something unique and special about this event.
I’m guessing we’ll see very small changes in the limitations, especially in the social media space. We need the Olympic Movement to live up to its ideals. But opening things up has secondary consequences that the entire movement needs to debate thoroughly, otherwise we risk the event simply becoming a massive World Championships of sports. We’d lose the underlying symbolism of the Olympic Games forever.
Quinn: Are the IOC’s motivations along these lines ideological, or simply commercial—they’re just overprotective of their brand?
Olsen: Many IOC officials have stated that the rationale for banning these displays is to "protect the athletes." A few months ago, I couldn’t understand what this meant. Why do athletes need protection? They have a free conscience. But then I began hearing about a recent campaign asking the public to push Olympians here in Sochi to specifically support gay rights, whether in their press conferences or on their uniforms.
I believe that if athletes feel strongly about this issue, or other issues, and want to speak out, they should do so in a way that’s permitted. Speaking up at a press conference here in Sochi, as some of these organizations have advocated that athletes do, places an athlete at risk of being reprimanded. I find the pressure on athletes to be exploitative. We didn’t elect them to represent us nor is it their job to politic. Keep in mind, many of these athletes are under 18 years old. So at least in that way, some gay rights groups have validated the IOC’s argument for banning anything remotely political. In the end, their pressure ultimately kills the ability of proactive athletes to speak out on their own accord.
Quinn: The IOC has been criticized for not speaking up enough in support of gay athletes and for not condemning Russia’s anti-gay laws more forcefully. Is that fair criticism? Does the IOC, and the Olympic Movement in general, have a responsibility to address issues like human rights? Or, again, should we see them instead as a lucrative organization bent on growing and protecting its brand?
Olsen: Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter certainly needs to be amended, as the U.S. Olympic Committee did with its governing documents several months ago. Including sexual orientation and gender identity, or simply deleting out all specific classes of discrimination, is a small move, but an important step demonstrating that the Olympic Movement recognizes the power of sport in universally improving society.
I’m hopeful that Thomas Bach, the new IOC President, will push for this change. And I think at the same time, there is an ongoing discussion in the IOC about being more aware of the ramifications of its host city selections. But simply because many of the instruments of politics are broken in the world does not mean we should rely on sport and entertainment to be the new venues, and for athletes and actors to be the spokespeople for these really important conversations we should be having about issues affecting our societies.
Sport improves society not by initiating political conversations, but by inspiring people to dream, to pursue excellence. It brings people together who otherwise wouldn’t share the same space. And during a game, everything and everyone in a stadium is focused on the sport, rather than the differences we all have with one another.
Our goal should be less focused on introducing gay rights or other issues into sport and more about eliminating barriers. Let sport stand on its own. Let it bring people together.
Quinn: Brian Boitano, who recently came out as gay and who is part of a delegation representing the U.S. in Sochi, said in an interview for "Meet The Press" that he thinks the IOC will never again select a host country with a dubious human rights record. Do you agree? If so, does that mean some good has come out of the Sochi situation with respect to gay rights?
Olsen: That brings up an interesting point: think back to when Sochi was awarded these Olympic Games back in 2007. Gay rights were certainly not improving in Russia at the time; these issues were not on many people’s minds when the host cities were discussed. So, my question would be, did the Olympic Games coming to Russia hurt LGBT rights here and globally? Would we be having the discussions, the lively conversations and accusations about how deplorable conditions are in Russia for LGBT people, would we be having these if these Olympic Games had been awarded to Salzburg, Austria, instead?
I don’t think we would, and that would have been a missed opportunity. My point is that even without any direct gay rights symbols in the Olympic venues, the Olympics have helped progress this issue. The Games have certainly attracted a spotlight onto Russia, its policies, and its cultural attitudes towards sexual orientation.
Quinn: Looking ahead, do you have any predictions about how things might change over the next four years?
Olsen: My prediction is as good as yours, but my hope is that we get to the point over the next few years where athletes don’t have to "come out," per se, if they’re gay … because it’s become a complete non-issue. I’m stoked about how quickly things are moving in the U.S., and I’m appreciative of all the energy so many people have put into progressing equality. Society needs to keep evolving more for sexuality to be a true non-issue, of course, but that will be a great future.
I think also as the younger generation — where coming out seems to be less dramatic — grows up, they’ll come into the elite levels of sport already with a good idea of who they are. But they need to trust that sport isn’t going to discriminate against them, and that’s why improving inclusion in sport is so important.
Quinn: You’ve been in Sochi throughout the Games and have seen several events, including the Opening Ceremony. What has the experience of these Games been like and how has it compared to the other Olympic experiences you’ve had?
Olsen: My perspective differs dramatically from what the mainstream media are saying. I could go on and on about my experience here so far, but in short, the Russians and their army of volunteers have created an amazing experience for athletes and spectators.
They’ve created phenomenal infrastructure and it’s very compact. I am in the Mountain Village, from which I can walk or ride gondolas to venues for twelve different ski and snowboard disciplines, most in twenty minutes or less. On the coast, all of the stadium events are held in a massive park surrounding the Medals Plaza where the medals are given out each night. This is adjacent to the Coastal Olympic Village. Most everyone in the village there rides bikes (in shorts and sunnies) to training and the dining hall. That’s a better set-up than even the Summer Olympics have!
It’s hard to compare different Olympics with one another, especially since each of the three Olympics I’ve been involved in were in very different roles. But I will say that no Olympic Games get off to a perfect start. Sochi has been no exception. I sense that the Russians have received particularly heavy criticism simply because social media so easily blow the small problem a few individuals encounter into a full-on viral fury. That didn’t exist as much in 2006 when I was an athlete in Torino, which were a beautiful Games, but suffered from a similar list of initial problems as Sochi.
The awesome part of my experience here is that I’ve been able to learn more about other sports. We won our first Olympic medal ever in individual luge, a sport I knew very little about until I hung out with the team and they explained how it worked. What a crazy sport. Besides the sliding sports, I’ve been around the freestyle ski and snowboard athletes the most. They really bring a great vibe to the Olympics, something unique that you don’t see in many Olympic sports. They’re all great competitors, for sure, but they give props to each other no matter which country someone is from, they cheer each other on, and hug it out together when they cross the finish line. The tricks and air they get is stunning, but their approach is so much more laid back than my experience in the other ski sports, which are really nationalistic.
Quinn: And finally, what has been the highlight of the Sochi Games for you?
Olsen: Obviously, my favorite sport has been biathlon. We’ve had our best finishes in history the past two weeks.
Otherwise, the most exciting has been hockey. The energy that builds up around a rink is just so palpable, and never have I experienced that more than during the U.S.-Russia match. There was so much hype about the game, and it did not disappoint. A Russian guy with a big bass drum thumped "Ro-sseee-yaa!" every five minutes, pushing the crowd to scream back. Whenever the Russian team was headed for the American goal, the crowd screamed out in unison, "Score-Goal," repeatedly until we took back possession. And the shoot-out! I’ve never seen anything like it, and to throw T.J. Oshie in for all of the last five shots? That was an incredible decision, which pales only in comparison to the fact he actually got three of those in. I’ve never before experienced a sport event like that as a spectator.
Brian Olsen, 30, can be reached at Twitter via @brianbolsen.
Author 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.