PARIS — Perhaps the most under-worked journalists at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics were those tasked with spotting any protests by athletes. Since Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and their fellow, far less famous Olympians didn’t yell “Free political prisoners!” or wave Tibetan flags, the reporters had little or no meat for stories.
Next February at the Sochi Games, protest-watch reporters should be free to hit the bars early, too. As in Beijing in 2008, chances are slim-to-nil that significant numbers of winter Olympians will kick up a big fuss against Russia‘s assaults on gays and their freedoms.
Not necessarily that athletes don’t care. Two Swedish athletes showed they care by painting their fingernails in gay-pride rainbow colors at track and field’s world championships in Moscow this month.
But the Olympics, by design, aren’t an easy or even a wise place for athletes with a conscience to make political or so cial statements.
It is fanciful to suggest that Sochi-bound Olympians will or should follow the example of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the U.S. sprinters who struck a world-electrifying blow for the African-American cause by thrusting their black-gloved fists in the air on the Olympic medal podium in 1968.
Those were angry times. That was the era when Muhammad Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War, leading to a ban from boxing, because he couldn’t see “why we and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’s never bothered us.”
To think that the PlayStation generation of athletes could now be equally defiant and militant, well … LOL. Some of the wealthiest athletes today are also those who have learned to keep their mouths shut and their sponsors happy.
Sure, there could be tweets of displeasure from Sochi about Russia’s anti-gay laws. We’ll look for subtle messages from athletes like the photos of a rainbow and her rainbow-painted nails that Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro posted from Moscow to her Instagram followers.
“A small and simple gesture,” she said in a phone interview.
Doing nothing wasn’t an option for her.
“It would have felt very cowardly,” Green Tregaro said. “I wouldn’t have liked myself if I didn’t paint the nails.
“I think the world got the message.”
Yes. But it’s a giant stretch to imagine legions of winter Olympians marching in Sochi with small rainbow flags or unfurling them on medal podiums in an LGBT imitation of Smith and Carlos. I hope Olympians prove me wrong. But there are many reasons to think none of that will happen.
Olympians are first and foremost competitors. Having sweated so hard to get to Sochi, their priority will be performing to the best of their abilities, not protesting.
Blake Skjellerup, a New Zealand speed skater who is gay, plans to pin a small rainbow flag – “my prid e pin,” he calls it – on the plastic-laminated accreditation badge all Olympians are required to wear.
“The statement is I’m gay and I’m not going to hide that in Russia,” he said in a phone interview.
But he added: “For me, competing definitely does come first. Because this is something that I have worked towards for my entire career and I really don’t want to jeopardize that. Yes, the human rights movement is very important to me. But I think what is more important is for me to remain in Sochi and I should do everything possible to do that. I don’t want to put my competing in jeopardy.”
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter is clear: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at the games. The charter says violators can be expelled and even be stripped of medals. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the 1968 Mexico City Games after their ‘black power’ salute.
Today, one hopes the International Olympic Committee isn ‘t so foolish that it would send home any Olympian who protests for gay rights in Sochi.
Rule 50 “has seldom if ever been ‘enforced’ with a ban, expulsion or similar,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said by email. “So banning and sending home from the games are a little wide of the mark.”
But that’s also because Olympians can be leaned upon to think twice and back down long before punishment becomes necessary. They are generally young and used to coaches telling them what to do and when to do it.
After her rainbow nails became global news, Swedish athletic officials asked Green Tregaro to paint them a different color. She complied, switching to bright red. She said she feared Swedish officials could face “some sort of trouble” if she didn’t.
“We often start by having an informal conversation with the athletes concerned, who in most cases understand the spirit of the rule and the reason for having it,” Adams said. In conversation, “athletes will be free to express themselves at the games. Rule 50 will remain in force – but you can be sure that it will be interpreted and applied sensibly and proportionately.”
In short, we should not expect Olympians to be our ambassadors for gay rights in Russia. Their main focus should and will be on squeezing the very best from themselves in what for many will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully, for some, that will include saying or doing something in support of Russia’s LGBT community after they have finished competing. But we cannot demand that of them. Nor should we automatically conclude that those who stay silent don’t care.
Instead of our athletes, urge our politicians, those we elect and pay to represent us, to pressure and shame President Vladimir Putin to repeal the anti-gay legislation he signed this July.
“It’s the responsibility of the world leaders to lead. The onus should be on them, not so much the athletes,” U.S. diving great Greg Louganis, who is gay, said in a phone interview.
World leaders could embarrass and isolate Putin by refusing his invites. Or they could attend his Olympic ceremonies and whip out rainbow flags. But most, of course, will go and behave because, as was the case with China in 2008, they don’t want to upset a country so big, important and powerful.
Either way, let the athletes be athletes. They aren’t surrogates for our collective conscience.
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