The way the story goes, Adolph Hitler eschewed his philosophy about the “Master Race” only to be publicly and internationally humiliated when Jesse Owens, an African American athlete, won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Frankly, I never much embraced the “We Showed Them!” mythology. I’m sure Hitler was exceedingly irritated by his “superior Aryan” losses, but to my knowledge it didn’t have the cause and effect of changing his belief system a wit.
Cut to 2013. Russia passes a broad law banning “gay propaganda” and several gay activists call for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. President Obama opposes the boycott, and adds that “the best way to show up those laws would be for gay or lesbian athletes to win medals.” To date, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been downright disgusting, preemptively admonishing potential athletes of their responsibility to respect the laws of the host country.
I would submit that, when it comes to Russia’s fundamental human rights violations, Martin Luther King, Jr. should serve as a far more critical reference point than Jesse Owens.
We live in the age of social media, and for us not to attend the Winter Olympics would mean our righteous indignation and moral outrage would receive virtually no coverage outside our borders. So I would agree that a boycott is not the appropriate or most effective response. Spreading gay propaganda and civil disobedience is.
We expect the very best from our Olympic Athletes. All of the things we don’t particularly expect from our professional athletes – no performance enhancing drugs, ultimate sportsmanship, teamwork, professional and personal decorum – are all of the things we suddenly demand when going for the gold. What it means to represent one’s country takes on an oddly heroic quality. It becomes one tale of triumph over adversity after another, of representing the best our nation has to offer, of making our country proud.
Which is precisely why those attending the Olympics should be real heroes and use it as a platform to stand tall and defend GLBT freedom. The Slalom, Snowboard, and Ski Jumping competitions are critical to be sure, and I don’t know what I would do without my figure skating, but the Winter Olympics can and should stand as a moment in time, a worldwide political condemnation of Russia’s backward and draconian social policy. And America should lead the way.
The term “propaganda” is so broad that taking a defiant stand is not terribly hard to do. Turn the Olympic Rings into a rainbow flag pin and distribute it to athletes far and wide to wear at the opening ceremonies. Ditto the condom packaging provided to athletes during their stay in the Olympic Village (at the London Summer Olympics, over 150,000 condoms were distributed to the athletes – a gay sex propaganda story just begging to be told). A whole lot of planned podium kissing. And, yes, I for one admit I would like to see some Olympic Athletes get arrested in Russia for breaking the propaganda law. Just imagine the international outcry.
Heroism takes many forms, the very least of which is winning a medal. Those athletes who have already condemned Russian policy before even going to the Olympics are heroes. Wentworth Miller, publicly declining an invitation to the St. Petersburg International Film Festival because of the country’s anti-gay laws and using it as a platform to come out of the closet, is a hero. Yet again, individuals are facing a profound opportunity to place courage above career, and actually stand for something. Small acts of civil disobedience on a massive public stage. Real heroes.