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Rooting for the Olympics underdog

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Gay Pride marchers wave rainbow flags atop Calgary's Mewata Armoury tank

Talk about star athletes! Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 summer Olympics, a record that stands to this day. According to the Olympics website, “...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. One of those world records was in the 4x100m relay. The quartet set a time that wouldn’t be bettered for 20 years.”

Even more remarkably, Owens achieved all this in an extremely hostile environment. The Ineternational Olympics Committee chose Berlin in 1931, two years before Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933. 

According to Wikipedia, “Hitler saw the [1936] Games as an opportunity to promote his government and ideals of racial supremacy, and the official Nazi party paper, the Völkischer Beobachter, wrote in the strongest terms that Jews and Black people should not be allowed to participate in the Games.”

World outcry forced the Third Reich to retract their outrageous request, and a few brave Jewish and Black athletes did compete. If Jesse Owens’ extraordinary triumphs embarrassed the Adolf Hitler’s government and its claims of Aryan racial superiority, other nations did not seem particularly sympathetic.

Indeed, some nations urged the world to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and forty-nine countries actually registered athletes with alternative games in Barcelona.  Unfortunately, the Spanish Civil War erupted the day before the games were due to start.

Russia was among the first to announce it would boycott the 1936 games, largely because Russia boycotted all the Olympics at that time and instead participated in the international workers’ games, Spartakiad. 

So there’s a certain irony in the way so many nations have turned against Russia during this Olympics, on human rights grounds. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision not to go to Sochi puts him in good company. Neither President Obama not Vice-President Biden will attend, nor French President Francois Hollande German President Joachim Gauck or European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding.

Russia’s new law banning gay friendly “propaganda” accessible to minors has sparked serious and humourous protests globally. On February 5, rallies in 20 cities worldwide protested outside the offices of ten major Olympics sponsors.   

In addition, CTV news reported that, “A coalition of 40 international groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, sent an open letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors last week urging them to run ads promoting equality for LGBT people.”

All the sponsors promptly re-affirmed their commitment to human rights. Some specifically declared their support for LGBT rights.

"Russia's law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it's harmful to a diverse society," said a post on the AT&T Consumer Blog, under the headline A Time for Pride and Equality.

The next day, Chobani (Yogurt) CEO Hamdi Ulukaya issued a statement "It's disappointing that in 2014 this is still an issue," he said. "We are against all laws and practices that discriminate in any way, whether it be where you come from or who you love. For that reason, we oppose Russia's anti-LGBT law." 

As ABC News reported, De Vry University spokesperson Ernie Gibble said, "We are against Russia's anti-LGBT law and support efforts to improve LGBT equality."  Coca Cola announced its strong support for LGBT rights. McDonald’s stated it supports human and civil rights. Visa said that it was “engaged” with the IOC on “this important topic.” 

Google changed the logo on its search page, showing rainbow patches, each holding an athlete in a winter Olympic sport, above a quote from the Olympic Charter about human rights.

Late night talk show host Chelsea Handler inspired rainbows over city halls across Canada when she ran the wrong photo – Vancouver mayor Greg Robertson – while reporting the Sochi mayor’s homophobic remarks. Learning of the mix-up through Twitter, Robertson seized the opportunity to reiterate his well-known support for gay rights.

“I’ve always stood strong and proud for Vancouver’s LGBTQ community, and gay rights are really important to Vancouverites,” he said.  Vancouver Council voted to send a delegation to Sochi to lobby the IOC for gay rights, headed up by City Councillor Tim Stevenson, who is gay. 

After Vancouver stepped up to the challenge, city after city across Canada voted to fly the rainbow flag for the duration of the games, starting with St John’s, Nfld. Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, and Whistler, among others, are flying rainbow flags out front, as their mayors hold news conferences to assert their cities’ support for LGBT rights.  Toronto’s Rob Ford is the biggest hold-out.

Then came the advertisements: Chevy’s Olympics ads include same-sex couples raising children   Norway promoted sports with an ad that ends, “Whatever team you play for...” ; the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion issued a 33 second commercial with two lugers rocking back and forth with a caption saying, “The Olympics have always been a little bit gay” ; and Britain’s Channel 4 re-branded to a rainbow-coloured logo and launched a “Gay Mountain” ad campaign.

The world seems to have seized upon the Sochi Olympics as a teachable moment. Twenty years ago, such a public outpouring of support probably would have been unimaginable. I am as stunned as I was the night the United States elected its first Black president. Despite decades of supporting gay rights publicly, I honestly did not expect to see this sea change in within my lifetime.

As with the 1936 games, however, there’s been a fierce debate on whether to boycott the games. In August, actor Stephen Fry wrote, “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential.”  Some progressives shun the games completely – not easy to do in this Olympics-soaked news cycle. Meanwhile, reporters have mentioned most spectator seats remain unsold.  

Other high-profile LGBT folks have urged gays to make their presence at Sochi highly visible and as successful as possible. As Susan Cole wrote in NOW, “gay rights activists have the chance to get unprecedented visibility.”

On the other hand, one young gay man close to my heart worries that the news media attempts to support gay athletes could actually jeopardize them.  Everybody’s looking for a Jesse Owens to prove Putin wrong. This fellow pointed to the coverage of Ireen Wust, who won two gold medals for speedskating. News reports mentioned that she prefers to be identified as a Dutch skater, even though she is out as a lesbian at home – in Holland, where people don’t pay much attention to such differences.

Yes, every victory by an LGBT athlete throws the hateful law’s lie back in the teeth of official Russia. But, he said, “Right now the media are on a witch hunt for every gay athlete who wins a medal. In effect, they’re identifying potential targets.” He pointed out that Ireen Wust is still competing, still in Russia, where speaking out for gay rights is against the law.  Wust should be the person to decide how she identifies (she has won speedskating gold three Olympics in a row) and how much risk she wants to take.

Although Canada lines up with the gay-friendly nations on the Olympics, he said, LGBT communities at home usually see a different orientation. Somewhere over the rainbow, the athletes will come home again. And now that all of these companies, politicians, and celebrities have made this big show of how much they support gay rights, he said, “it’s time for them to live up to it.”

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