The crucial role of queer olympic athletes

Illustration by Yewei Wang
Illustration by Yewei Wang

On Feb. 12, Canadian figure skaters Eric Radford and Meagan Duhamel earned the gold medal in the team skate competition in the Winter Olympics. This win was especially historic because Radford is the first openly gay man to become a gold medal champion since the inception of the Winter Olympics nearly 100 years ago.

Figure skater Adam Rippon made U.S. history when he earned a bronze medal in the free skate category, establishing him as the first openly gay American man to medal in the Winter Olympics. Overall, there are 14 openly queer athletes from around the world competing in the Pyeongchang Games, doubling the number of out athletes that competed in the 2014 Sochi Games.

The rapidly increasing visibility of gay athletes naturally raises the topics of representation and perception in sports. When discussing the global perception of gay athletes, it seems imperative to look back at the political turmoil surrounding the 2014 Sochi Olympics. On July 30, 2013, only about six months from the start of the games, Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin signed what is commonly known as the ‘gay propaganda law,’ also called the ‘anti gay law.’ This law was created in order to ‘protect’ Russian minors from anything that could be perceived as promoting ‘homonormativity’ and was supported by more than 100 organizations from 33 countries around the world.

Despite intense backlash from global leaders, the International Olympic Committee, activists, athletes and fans, the creation of this law undoubtedly exacerbated the sense of unease and unwelcome for queer athletes.

The Russian anti-gay law is an intense example of how too often, representation of the LGBTQ community is written off as ‘propaganda’ by those who resist recognizing the legitimacy of queer people. As the representation of queer people has increased through film, TV shows and literature, so have virulent claims by the far right that the queer community is pushing some sort of “gay agenda.” Because scripts, books and plays are created imaginatively, there is a homophobic belief all of the queer experiences portrayed must be imagined too, that they do not and can not translate into real life.

This is why queer representation in sports, especially the Olympics, is uniquely important. To see gay athletes participate and thrive is a testament to the fact that such success is not reserved for those who have historically claimed it. Despite the fact that we see these athletes through TV or phone screens, there is no doubt that their experiences, performances and lives are unequivocally real. There is no blaming their extensive media presence on politically motivated Hollywood elites, or proposing that they exist purely as Oscar bait.

This is not to say that the representation of queer athletes is apolitical, in fact quite the opposite. Ashland Johnson, director of public education and research for national LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, called Rippon’s performance “revolutionary” in an interview with NBC.

“Those few minutes on ice just inspired a generation of LGBTQ young people,” she said. “Even today being an out athlete is revolutionary and athletes like Adam are paving the way for the next generation of young out athletes.”

Mary Macleod, Contributing Columnist

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