Faster, higher, stronger says the Olympic motto, but if you’re gay and going to Russia, add “braver”.
I love the Olympics. Always have, which is counter-intuitive since I am not a huge sports fan. I’ll watch the Detroit teams if they’re in the playoffs, and I used to follow college football until Nick Buoniconti’s son was paralyzed playing for the Citadel and I realized I was holding my breath on every play. Even during the Olympic games there are precious few events I will actually watch from start to finish. Ice skating. Freestyle skiing, where they do the daffy double twisters off the launch ramps. But even if I am never going to invest an hour watching the cross-country skiers grow ice in their beards, I love all the in-between happenings. The athlete stories. Their interviews with the press. The developing rivalries. From the parade of nations where Greece leads off and the host county marches last, to the closing ceremony when all the athletes enter the arena as one body, I’m an Olympic couch potato.
During the 2012 summer games in London, I even had a six-degrees-of-separation-type connection to the Olympics, when The New Civil Rights Movement decided to cover the participating gay athletes. We published their biographies, and a “breaking” piece every time someone won a medal. Every evening I would personally post the start times for all the next day’s events with gay athletes, and every morning I would post the results of their matches. Pride House in London, sort of an unofficial community center for the gay athletes and fans, linked to our posts. In my mind, that made me sort of an honorary Olympian once removed – kind of like the cousin on the Christmas card list of the guy who drives the Zamboni at the hockey arena, or the girlfriend who bought the bright orange gloves for the spectator who rings the cowbell at the bottom of the ski course. Let’s face it, that tenuous connection to Pride House is about as close to the Olympics as I will ever get.
I would have loved to have done the same for the Sochi Olymics’ Pride House next year!
Of course, there won’t be an Olympic Pride House in Sochi. The government said nyet. There will be no celebration of gay athletes. Just the opposite, there is growing concern for the safety of anyone gay going to Russia right now. But there is one gay athlete who has taken a public stand and announced that he will be going to Sochi, out, proud, and wearing his official Pride Pin from the 2012 Olympic Games in Vancouver as he marches in the opening ceremonies. Under a newly passed law that makes it a crime to influence minors in the ways of the gays, wearing that tiny rainbow flag pin could be considered criminal by the Russians.
Blake Skjellerup is a 28-year-old short track speed skater who trains in Canada and competes for New Zealand. He participated in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics still in the closet, finishing a respectable sixteenth. It’s rather ironic that Blake credits the exhibition of gay athletes at the Vancouver Olympics’ Pride House as the impetus for finally coming out that spring.
“Gays are too often given a stereotype.” Blake said to reporters upon coming out. “Back when I was 18, and becoming serious about my sport and my Olympic goals, if I could have seen an athlete like myself out there – with whom I could relate to – my journey would have been a lot easier.
Johnny Weir meets a specific stereotype, I meet a specific stereotype and Gareth Thomas meets another. Being gay is just like any other personality trait: it’s multifaceted. I can’t personally relate to Weir or Thomas, and nor will many other young gay athletes out there. But maybe some of them will see something in me to relate to. The more types we provide, the more we’ll appeal to people.”
Blake took his responsibility as a role model so seriously he made a car trip across New Zealand talking to school kids. He also has no corporate sponsors and must raise his own money to compete in short track. Since he recently did a naked photo spread for Gay Times magazine, it would be rather difficult to go back into the closet now for safety sake, even if he wanted to, which he most definitely does not.
“Being in the closet was not a very fun time for me.” Blake told the Windy City Times. “So, there is no way that I am going back in, especially for something that I’ve worked my entire life for, which is the Olympic Games. That’s what is most important to me. I’m not going to change who I am because one country sees that who I am is wrong,”
There has been increasing pressure by the LGBT community for a boycott of the Sochi Games in protest of Russia’s open hostility toward its own gay citizens, but Blake says he opposes any effort to boycott the games. He thinks the better plan is to have a large pro-gay contingent, gays and their straight allies, making a statement about human rights by example.
“I’m 100 percent against a boycott. I think it’s much more important for there to be a very large presence in Sochi, and for that presence to make a stand and just be there, support for the human rights movement in Russia. I think it will be a very positive influence having me there.”
Blake will compete this November in the short track Olympic qualifier in Italy. He needs to finish in the top 32, and it’s on to Sochi. He says he has confidence in the International Olympic Committee to keep him safe. He speculated that he’d be secure enough in the Olympic Village, but he admits outside that protected zone might be “a different story.”
I wish I shared his confidence in the IOC. They did release this statement in support of an Olympics “free of discrimination,” but the last sentence seems to preclude the idea they might pressure Russia to guarantee gay athletes will not be prosecuted under Russia’s new “don’t say nice things about gays in front of children” law.
“The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation,” said the IOC statement. “The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardize this principle.
“As you know, this legislation has just been passed into law and it remains to seen whether and how it will be implemented, particularly as regards the Games in Sochi. As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media. Wider political issues in the country are best dealt with by other international organizations more suited to this endeavor.”
Every week I stumble across horrific stories from Russia. Skin head gangs assaulting gay kids. Villages getting together to kill the neighbor they think is gay. There have even been Orthodox priests videotaped leading the assault on a gay rights demonstration. By no stretch of the imagination is Blake Skjellerup’s – or any gay Olympian’s – safety assured in Russia these days. At the Sochi Olympics, just competing is an act of extraordinary bravery for each and every gay athlete.
There is a saying in Russia: “Yes, our laws are harsh, but at least we don’t enforce them.” I hear it’s leftover from the Soviet days, but unless the IOC steps up their pressure on Russia to guarantee the Olympic Village will be exempted from their anti-gay laws, it’s all I have to hang my hat on. I am worried for Blake Skjellerup. But I am also an admirer of his courage. You can bet I will be cheering for him when he skates. And today, I am very proud to put once and future gay Olympian Blake Skjellerup, On Our Radar.
Photos from Blake’s Facebook Page
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.