Sochi Games Are Apt Venue for Athlete Activism
The United States has a long, inglorious tradition of attacking political athletes who push for progressive social change in their prime, only to praise them decades later. Recently U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun epitomized this double standard. When asked about John Carlos and Tommie Smith's iconic act of medal-stand dissent - when they thrust their black-gloved fists into the sky at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics - he responded, "I'm proud of what they did. It is memorable, and memorable in a positive way." Yet when asked to comment on Billie Jean King's provocative remark that "sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment," Blackmun bristled, blathering about how the Games are supposed to unite and not divide.
The truth is that the Sochi Olympics provide a prime - and prime-time - moment for a courageous act of athlete activism. Rarely has the arc of history so tantalizingly telegraphed itself.
Last summer, while most of the rest of the world was expanding rights for LGBT people, Russia lurched in the opposite direction.
President Vladimir Putin signed antigay legislation banning "propaganda" that promotes "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. The legislation aggravated a sharp rise in street violence leveled at the LGBT community. Yet the International Olympic Committee has assiduously avoided condemnation of Putin's law, even though such state-sanctioned intolerance clashes with the Olympic Charter.
Meanwhile, Putin and his allies have done all they can to foreclose the possibility of the Russian LGBT movement bringing its protests to Sochi. The Duma has passed legislation that is both drastic and elastic. One law requires "politically active" nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from outside Russia to register as foreign agents. Another advances a definition of high treason so broad that activists fear it could be leveled against anyone who teams up with foreign groups. Russian security forces have vowed to vacuum up every morsel of Internet and telephone communication at the Sochi Games.
Brandishing his trademark finger-snap brand of authoritarianism, Putin initially issued a decree banning all non-Olympic "gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets" in Sochi between Jan. 7 and March 21. Then Russian authorities backpedaled, vowing to establish "protest zones," with the closest one 7.5 miles from the nearest Olympic site.
Yet there's one thing the Russian Olympic security apparatus - all $2 billion of it - can't stop: a principled athlete taking a high-profile stance for justice. Sochi presents the best opportunity for a Carlos-Smith moment in years. As John Carlos said to us in an interview, "If I was an athlete today, I wouldn't be concerned about anything other than what's right. You need to follow your conscience, follow your heart, follow your wisdom, and follow your education as to what the plight is. If you feel like you must do something, the only thing you will regret is doing nothing."
The fact that the Olympics occur under the hot glare of the global media spotlight abets athlete activism. Security forces and Olympic honchos will hesitate to squelch the free speech of athletes, especially while the cameras roll. Activists often chant "the whole world is watching," and with the Olympics, it actually is.
New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who is gay, has pledged to openly defy the antigay law. Lesbian Australian snowboarder and out-lesbian Belle Brockhoff says she will publicly criticize the law as part of the "P6" protest (based on upholding the Olympic Charter's Principle 6). U.S. snowboarder Hannah Teter described the law as "very inhumane" and hinted at Sochi activism, even if that meant breaking rules against dissent. "That's what snowboarders do: We break rules," she stated. Brian Burke, the chief of USA Hockey, whose hockey-playing son came out of the closet only to tragically die in a car accident the next year, said, "Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, 'I am pro-gay.' "
The time is right for courageous athletes to seize the opportunity of a lifetime. Let's hope an athlete - or better yet, a critical mass of athletes - steps up to this historic challenge.
The official Sochi 2014 motto is "Hot. Cool. Yours." Homophobia is burning hot in Russia. The IOC's response has been cool. Athletes, the stage is yours.
© 2014 The San Francisco Chronicle