Football Star Out, Sochi Offside

Thomas Hitzlsperger, a famous German football player who represented his country in the national team 52 times, played in Germany, England, and Italy before injuries ended his career last September. The other day he made a surprising announcement in an interview:  “I am gay.” He explained he wanted to advance the discussion about professional athletes being homosexual.

He chose the moment for opening his closet door carefully, referring to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi which will start next month. “I think we need more critical voices against the campaign of several governments against homosexual people,” he said.

Hitzlsperger’s announcement received supportive responses from government leaders like Angela Merkel and David Cameron. It was big news, not only in Germany. I posted his interview on my Facebook page and immediately the responses were coming in. One ‘friend’ commented, “Why is it important that a football player reveals his sexual orientation? Why do you care?”

These are relevant questions. The football world is a macho world where homophobic slurs are not uncommon. The fact that Hitzlsperger is the first openly gay (ex-)football player in Germany is telling. The situation in other football-minded countries is similar. Players are afraid to come out of the closet, fearing discrimination and rejection. Hitzlsperger said in an interview he wanted to open up earlier in his career, but was advised not to. When more football players come out as gay, they will show that homosexuality in sport like football is normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. It might inspire young people who struggle with their sexual orientation to feel more comfortable about themselves.

We should not overlook the other part of Hitzlsperger’s statement. In Russia, the government approved the anti-gay propaganda law, making it illegal to discuss homosexuality in a positive way in the presence of minors. In Russia, anyone who exposes children to an interview like Hitzlsperger’s could be taken to court and fined, and if Hizlsperger himself did so he could be deported from the country.

Hitzlsperger received many positive responses. However, I did not hear of a statement by Germany’s Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Bach should unequivocally condemn Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law and urge President Putin to repeal the law. Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter does not allow any form of discrimination within the Olympic movement. Russia is violating that principle by silencing gay people. The IOC should take a firm stand protecting sexual minorities.

We need more, not fewer, courageous people like Thomas Hitzlsperger.