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LGBT eyes are on Sochi
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2014-02-05

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Openly gay New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup, first alternate for Winter Olympics. PR photo


The 2014 Winter Olympics will be the most high-profile Olympics ever from an LGBT perspective, regardless of how many—if any—out athletes participate in the quadrennial sporting spectacular, or if any gold, silver or bronze medals are presented to competitors also proud to wave the rainbow flag.

The Games will be held Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia, and 89 countries will be participating in 98 events in 15 winter sport disciplines.

Gay rights will be center stage in these Games, without question.

Last summer, Russia enacted a law that bans the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations." Worldwide leaders, including President Obama, have condemned the law. Celebrity athletes, actors, musicians and more have all spoken out against Russia's anti-gay laws.

And it's not just the high-profile contingent. There was, for instance, a viral campaign launched in late January titled "Fuck You Putin," which six students and their teacher spearheaded in Sweden in response to Russia's anti-gay laws—with their middle-finger salute aimed directly at Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. Organized through Facebook, the campaign calls for pro-LGBT individuals around the world to use their mobile phones to Tweet, Facebook or Instagram a picture of themselves flipping off the camera with the tag #fuckyouputin.

That campaign's goal is to bring further attention and visibility to the anti-gay laws in Russia and the plight of LGBT Russians—and countless other groups, causes and individuals also have the same goal.

"Sochi creates an interesting scenario because there has been more interest and mainstream media coverage of LGBT in sports due to the [fact that the] Winter Olympics are happening in a country with anti-gay laws," said Rob Smitherman, a former Chicago resident now living in Cleveland and part of the organizing committee for the 2014 Gay Games, to be held this August in Ohio. "When the Olympics happened in London, there was little, if any, discussion of inclusion of LGBT athletes on a widespread level. So, ironically, one of the legacies of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be a more global appreciation and understanding of the importance of welcoming everybody to the playing fields around the world."

Daniel Vaudrin, of Montreal, is the president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association ( GLISA ), the international sport and human rights organization that runs the quadrennial, multi-sport World Outgames. "I think [the Sochi Games are] an amazing opportunity for the LGBT community to really have a global discussion [on gay rights]."

Since the passage of Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, the spotlight on gays in Russia has been ever-present—and certainly eye-opening. In late January, for instance, the video of Russian protestor Pavel Lebedev made its way around the world via the Internet. Lebedev was tackled by police and then forcefully removed after waving a rainbow flag during an Olympic torch procession in his hometown of Voronezh, Russia.

"Hosting the games here contradicts the basic principles of the Olympics, which is to cultivate tolerance," Lebedev told the Associated Press, which contacted him by phone while he was at the police station.

Smitherman said the Lebedev incident was "so sad" to watch, and also "shows how lucky we are in the United States, how far we have to go, and why it is important that the Gay Games exists."

Brian Kupersmit, president of the predominantly gay Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ), expressed hope that "issues," gay or others, would not cast a further shadow over the 2014 Sochi Games, "especially at a time when the world is coming together to celebrate athletes, many who have trained their whole lives for these Games," he said. "But unfortunately, my gut tells me that there will be [more issues]. The entire world will be watching and I suspect visitors and athletes will show their support through the use of the rainbow flag. We all will have to wait and see how the Russian government and the [International Olympic Committee] IOC handle whatever arises."

President Obama sent a loud message to Putin and the entire country of Russia that he does not support their anti-gay ways. He opted out of the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Olympics and, instead, is sending a group featuring three high-profile gays: tennis legend Billie Jean King, three-time Olympic figure skater Brian Boitano and former Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.

Obama will not be attending, nor will a member of the president's family or an active Cabinet secretary, marking the first time in at least 20 years that no U.S. president, vice president, one of their wives or a current cabinet secretary will be in a U.S. Olympic delegation.

The highest-ranking official will be former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

"The inclusion of LGBT athletes in the U.S. delegation shows the world that the United States is willing to stand up for what's right in the face of something so wrong as Russia's anti-gay laws," Smitherman said. "More importantly, the delegation represents the diversity in sport, signaling to all the LGBT competitors—those who are openly gay and those who are still closeted—that their world-class talent is appreciated and welcomed."

Kupersmit added, "Sending openly gay athletes to represent the U.S. sends a clear message to the Russian government and the world that we are proud of all of our athletes, both straight and gay, and will not allow the ignorance of world leaders to push anyone into the closet or off the world stage."

Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of gay sports website Outsports.com, said Obama's inclusion of Cahow "was the most powerful selection, because she is there clearly to include LGBT athletes."

Hayley Wickenheiser, meanwhile, was named Canada's flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies at the Sochi Olympics, it was announced in late January.

A women's hockey legend who has led her Canadian team to three consecutive Olympic gold medals, Wickenheiser, 35, is making her fifth Olympic appearance. She also has long been outspoken against Russia's anti-gay legislation and the right of athletes to compete at the Olympics no matter what their sexual orientation.

Cries for a boycott of the Sochi Games, based on Russia's anti-gay stance, have reverberated worldwide since moments after that country passed the laws.

Others, meanwhile, have been just as adamant that any boycott would do nothing whatsoever to advance gay-rights.

Smitherman, Kupersmit and Zeigler all opposed a boycott.

"The 2014 Gay Games does not support a boycott," Smitherman said. "While we certainly do not support Russia's anti-gay laws, this is about the athletes. We support all of the athletes competing. We also think the Winter Olympics in Russia offers an excellent opportunity to further the discussion of the LGBT community in sports, and the value of welcoming and inclusive playing fields around the world."

Kupersmit said that a boycott of the Games hurts the athletes more than anything.

Think back to 1936, Kupersmit said. Jesse Owens went to Berlin to compete for the U.S. Adolf Hitler was using those Games, held in Germany, as a way to push "Nazi propaganda, promoting concepts of 'Aryan racial superiority' and depicted ethnic Africans as inferior,'" Kupersmit said.

Owens, an African-American track-and-field sensation, won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Games—and was the most successful athlete at those Summer Olympics.

"The fact that we did not boycott the Games in 1936 allowed one athlete, Owens, to take hold of history and turn a dark period of time into something much brighter that, to this day, continues to inspire athletes from all walks of life," Kupersmit said. "I really hope that the openly gay athletes competing in the 2014 Games achieve the same results."

Zeigler added, "From day one I said a boycott was a terrible idea. It punished the wrong people. Plus, no boycott of the Olympic Games has ever accomplished a thing. You don't win by sitting on the sidelines; you win by participating to your fullest."

GLISA's Vaudrin said by phone in late January that GLISA also has never, ever supported a boycott of the Winter Olympics.

A boycott "would have been the wrong message, especially since, if you're not present, you're not able to talk about anything," Vaudrin said.

The Federation of Gay Games ( FGG ) opposed an athlete or a country boycott, but it does support a political boycott. "The intention of Vladimir Putin is to use these Olympics as a stage to promote himself and his regime," said Marc Naimark, Vice President, External Affairs for the Federation of Gay Games ( FGG ). "By refusing to attend, world leaders deprive him of this opportunity and show their opposition to the host country's policies without harming athletes."

NBC will broadcast the Sochi Games, and the network's most high-profile announcer, Bob Costas, has made it clear in pre-Olympic interviews that he will address Russia's anti-gay stance—and he wants to talk about it face-to-face with Putin himself.

"If Putin doesn't drag his butt into the studio, then we'll talk about [Russian anti-gay laws] without him," Costas told the press in early January. "But if he shows up, we'd rather talk to him."

Bernard Cherkasov, the CEO of Equality Illinois, said the 2014 Sochi Games are taking place at a time when the world has made tremendous progress toward LGBT equality—and yet the Games are being hosted "by a regime that is not just unfriendly, but has taken affirmative steps to marginalize and oppress its LGBT citizens," he said.

The response of the democratic countries to recent Russian actions has not been strong enough, Cherkasov added. "Sending a U.S. delegation that [features] openly LGBT athletes is symbolic, but it doesn't show Russia that there are consequences to their bad actions.

"If there is a silver lining to this, it is that fair-minded people all over the world are looking at Russia's homophobic actions and are having conversations [about] LGBT equality and oppression."

Smitherman said that the 2014 Gay Games ( Aug. 9-16 in Northeast Ohio ) is supporting the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, and have a special offer for Gay Games participants. Anyone who uses the code "Sochi" through the end of March will receive $10 off general registration and have $20 of their registration fee donated to the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. "[Gay Games] participants can save [money] and donate to support the athletes who face Russia's anti-gay laws year-round," he said.

Vaudrin speculated that, "for sure—it's almost inevitable" that something major is going to happen during the Sochi Games for a gay, or anti-gay, forefront.

"I would not be surprised if [a major gay incident occurs], but would be extremely disappointed if it turned to violence because the LGBT community has never been about violence; it's about being there in the street, in your face, discussing, shouting, screaming … but it's never been about guns or violence, explosions, or killing other people," he said.

FGG's Naimark said the first "gay issue" is the fear instilled by the Russian government and the IOC. "For athletes who are gay, any concerns they may have about their safety in general or in the case of any demonstration of their sexual orientation, for example, embracing a partner, can interfere with their performance," Naimark said. "The IOC needed to make clear what behavior was acceptable, rather than hiding behind Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter. Thomas Bach has just now made clear something we encouraged him to announce at our meeting on Nov. 30: that athletes are free to respond to journalists' questions as they see fit."

Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater from New Zealand, came out as gay after competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he finished 16th. He was poised to compete as an out and proud gay Olympian in Sochi, and even promised to wear an official Olympic rainbow pin on his uniform—and he would have been the first publicly out male athlete to ever compete in a Winter Olympics. But Skjellerup finished 33rd in qualifying for the 500-meter short track speed skating event, which was one spot out of automatic qualification.

Russian Olympic organizers denied a request to host a Pride House at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Pride House, which was first organized for the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games in Vancouver, is a welcoming venue for LGBT athletes, fans, allies, and others during international sporting events.

But officials with Pride House International didn't stop when told "No" for Sochi.

Instead, in late January, Pride House International ( PHI ) announced that almost 30 communities around the world would be hosting a Remote Pride House.

Chicago is scheduled to have a Remote Pride House, according to the PHI website.

Les Johnson is promoting remote Pride Houses in the U.S., where about 10 are scheduled.

The hosts of future Pride Houses are jumping on the Remote Pride House bandwagon, including Glasgow ( 2014 Commonwealth Games ), Brazil ( 2014 FIFA World Cup ), and Toronto ( 2015 Pan Am Games ), as well as the organizing committees for the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland and the next World Outgames in Miami ( 2017 ).

Another campaign aimed at showing support for the LGBT community is the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative ( SSHHI ), which is asking attendees at the 2014 Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games to take every opportunity to hold hands in public with a person of the same sex to denounce the anti-gay laws in Russia and to call the IOC to action to end discrimination in sport, according to its website.

SSHHI has an ongoing photo campaign, featuring same-sex individuals. Photos for the campaign, including photos taken in mid-January at the Sin City Shootout, a multi-sport LGBT event held in Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

Smitherman has been photographed for the SSHHI, as well as trans mixed martial-arts fighter Fallon Fox, and Kurt Dahl, the president of FGG and a Chicago area resident.

"It will be a strong signal that there are LGBT people in Sochi," Vaudrin said.

Openly gay figure-skating legend Brian Boitano is part of the U.S. delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics.


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