The White House has announced its final delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Sochi, Russia. In a strong response to Russia’s anti-homosexual “propaganda” laws and the recent rash of violence and human rights abuses toward the LGBT community in Russia, not only has President Obama refused his invitation to attend the opening or closing ceremonies, but he gave away his tickets to several openly gay athletes and politicians who will represent the United States at the Winter Games. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano will accompany tennis star Billy Jean King, while ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and newly-out figure skater Brian Boitano will also join the delegation.
“The U.S. Delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States,” said White House spokesman Shin Inouye. However, some are upset at Obama for mixing his human rights agenda with their sports. Veteran Olympic reporter Alan Abrahamson criticized Obama for playing politics in the sports realm. Is his criticism valid?
The role of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), among other lofty goals such as world peace and ending sexism, is “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” The Fundamental Principles of Olympism (aka The Olympic Charter), an IOC manifesto, claims that the “goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” The sixth fundamental principle is that, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” The modern Olympics are inextricably linked to the promotion of human rights and understanding. Within the context of athletics, the Olympics are a grand celebration of diversity and commonality of mankind. The failure of the IOC to act has caused political leaders, gay rights activists and athletes worldwide to weigh in on the civilized world’s response. Shall we boycott or occupy?
While the Western gay community has been split on the issue of boycotting, reports are that the Russian gay community universally wants gay athletes to come and compete. A Facebook community page, “Boycott 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia,” has 57,590 “likes” (including four of my good Facebook friends). Boycotts certainly have their time and place, and I don’t question their motivation. However, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the 1936 Berlin Games and Jesse Owens. Hitler had sought to use the games as proof of his theory of Aryan racial superiority. Contrary to Hitler’s predictions, Jesse Owens won four gold medals – in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and the long jump. He managed to break or equal nine Olympic records – and also set three world records. I don’t think anyone would disagree that more was accomplished in one hour for the cause of equality through Owens’ participation than through abstention. While the lesson may have been lost on Hitler, it has been an endless source of encouragement for civil rights advocates back home in the States and abroad.
Ironically, Russia’s attempts to keep “homosexualism” on the “down-low” during the Olympics have caused the world to focus on the issue with laser beam intensity. There is blood in the water and I fully expect the frenzied press to act accordingly. There will be news, commentary, and human interest stories about gay athletes and the Sochi community. NBC has hired New Yorker editor David Remnick to provide coverage of Russian politics, including fallout from the country’s anti-gay laws, during the opening and closing ceremonies.
“We are facing an Olympics that have a number of issues around them — substantial, meaty, news issues,” NBC’s Olympics executive producer Jim Bell told Sports Illustrated. “For us to be able to have an opportunity to address them with someone like David made perfect sense. We would be remiss not to rely on some of the best and brightest minds to help present this to our viewers the right way.”
NBC has also hired “uber-gay” figure skater Johnny Weir and MSNBC’s Thomas Roberts to provide commentary. Amidst criticism of their coverage of the controversial laws, NBC has promised that Johnny, Thomas Roberts and the network “will cover all newsworthy issues as they are relevant to the Games, including the LGBT law.”
While Obama and members of his administration will be joining other equality-minded national leaders in abstaining from the Games, he is sending a colorful delegation in his stead.
Likewise, I fully expect that there will be other signs of solidarity from countries and athletes worldwide. It is shaping up to be one of the gayest Games on record – we can only hope it helps to knock some sense into Russia’s intolerant and hateful ways.
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