I’ve been collecting stories and working on blog post ideas concerning the upcoming 2014 Olympics set to be in Russia, and the potential danger for LGBTQ fans and athletes. Today, I saw this post, it it pushed me over the top, until I just had to post, and do it now. For the record, I like both Weir and Skjellerup, and I respect their right to an opinion. I think however, that their opinion is clouded by personal agendas and they fail to understand how these impact what they are saying. It is probably also true to say, that I agree with them, to a degree. I just think their focus on if there should or shouldn’t be a boycott distracts from the far more important questions or potential actions.
Speed skater Blake Skjellerup and figure skater Johnny Weir are in agreement that a boycott of the Sochi 2014 Games over Russia’s inhumane treatment of gay people is a bad idea and speak out about how the presence of openly gay athletes at the Games may send a more powerful message.
I want to address first the fallacy that these two have much business thinking their idea means much just because they are Olympic athletes. Their opinions are just like those of anyone else- no more or no less, and here’s why. The very notion of “out olympic athlete” is not such a very common idea and each athlete’s history of it is worth considering. Johnny Weir didn’t come out until after he retired from Olympic skating. What would he know about the value of being an out athlete during an Olympics? Blake Skjellerup came out after the 2010 Games because he didn’t want it to interfere with sponsorships. While he may be planning to go to the 2014 Games as an Out Athlete, his own history shows that far less dangerous factors have influenced persons to remain closeted.
Now consider the Russian Olympics. While the IOC is claiming they will protect the athletes and the fans, no one with half a brain cell believes that currently they can do that. It is a great idea that has no practical way to implement.Additionally, Russian officials claim they will arrest anyone- athlete or spectator.
If Blake would choose to remain in the closet out of financial considerations, why would he think that having one’s life placed in danger is not a reason to put a halt to the Olympics being held in Russia? That is the craziest thinking I’ve ever heard.
I totally buy the fact that athletes have trained their whole lives for this opportunity to compete, and a boycott isn’t fair to those athletes. But the boycott isn’t what is stopping the athletes. Russia’s homophobic and dangerous laws are the issue not the fact that many people are standing up and saying Russia’s laws are unacceptable.
The real solution is for the IOC to pull the games out of Russia and allow them to be hosted somewhere where people are safe and where nondiscrimination protections exist. If Blake and Johnny really want to do something courageous, they ought to start working towards that end, and quit lobbying against a boycott.
I have heard the argument that no one was concerned about China and their failure for progressive Human Rights threatening a similar boycott of those Games. That may or may not be true, but it is really irrelevant. That was then and this is now. We can not continue to make the same mistakes and expect differing results. Russia’s crackdown on all “homosexual propaganda” which will impact athletes and spectators alike is so draconian it can not be tolerated.
And what of it really- if Blake Skjellerup triumphantly goes and competes and is kept safe by the IOC and his government? How cool and symbolic it will be to show the world! But step back and ask yourself, how will that really, in practical terms impact the lives of young queer Russians who face torture, violence, arrest, and even death? Talk about imperialism at it’s worst! Blake and Johnny should be ashamed of themselves.
The good news is that the Olympics are not right around the corner. There is time for dialogue, activism, and work for change. That work includes realistic discussion of the need to boycott and refuse participation. To do any less is turning a blind eye to the queer citizens, especially the youth of Russia and every other country where lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer people are so mistreated.
These athletes need to stop thinking only of themselves and start thinking about the bigger picture. What about those athletes who are too afraid to be out? Does this force some athletes further into the closet? What about the fans? And what about the people of Russia? Even if Russia agrees not to arrest athletes and fans but continues to crackdown on it’s own citizens, then Blake and Johnny are supporting a separate and unequal world. Where is the fairness and courage there?
And what will an “out gay athlete” at the Russian Olympics really mean? What will that look like? Will that not threaten the very non-political nature of the Games? How will an athlete’s outness be known? If a sportscaster even remarks about Blake’s boyfriend, she or he would be in violation of the Russian law.
In other words, just talking about if the boycott is a good or bad idea is a distraction from the bigger issues at stake.