THE BLOG

Hoping for a Gay Jesse Owens?

08/15/2013 08:43 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
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Both Russia and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are perpetuating homophobia. This much is clear.

The Russian Federation recently passed legislation outlawing what it describes as "homosexual propaganda." Passed under the all-too-familiar guise of "protecting minors," the legislation essentially curtails freedom of speech and expression for LGBT individuals and their supporters. Holding hands, displaying a rainbow flag, or simply being transgender may result in arrest and punishment. Six LGBT activists were detained recently after speaking favorably of "nontraditional relations," unfurling a banner that read, "Being Gay Is Normal," near a library in Moscow. And lawmakers have sworn to uphold the law during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, putting athletes, trainers, volunteers, and fans in danger.

The IOC has only made matters worse. Understandably panicked after years of planning, preparation, and fundraising for the Sochi Olympics, the IOC scoured its bylaws and determined that expressing support for the human rights of LGBT people amounts to political speech, which is forbidden of athletes during the Games. Given an opportunity to stand up for LGBT rights, the IOC passed. And you can bet that FIFA is watching: Russia will play host to the World Cup in 2018. Whether or not the IOC is simply biding its time while it works on a solution remains to be seen. Either way, rumblings of a boycott are growing stronger from many member states, in some cases bolstered by political battles outside the rink.

So what are people saying about Sochi? It seems that every bad political move (real or perceived) inevitably results in the same thing: Hitler comparisons. It makes sense. Likening a political foe to one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the Earth is an oft-used tactic. Sometimes it's just plain offensive. Other times it is downright laughable. With Sochi, the comparison is a fair one. Berlin, of course, hosted the 1936 Olympic Games under newly passed, virulently racist and anti-Semitic laws. Historians and scholars generally agree that the 1936 Olympics elevated Germany's status worldwide, helping establish the Nazi state as a legitimate power.

Aside from jarring images of the Olympic torch passing through swastika-adorned gates, one story from 1936 stands out in our collective memory: that of U.S. track and field star Jesse Owens. Owens deflated Hitler's racist theories, winning gold in the 100-meter sprint, long jump, 200-meter sprint, and 4x100 sprint relay. His athletic performance remains one of the best in Olympic history.

Many have called for the Sochi Games to go on, seeing them as an opportunity to advance the cause of LGBT rights worldwide. Most of these voices make some mention of Owens' awe-inspiring performance as an example of the triumph of good in the face of evil, hoping for such a moment in 2014. Don't punish the athletes who have worked so hard for this moment, they say. Remember 1980, when the U.S. boycotted the Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan! The athletes suffered! Our collective memory has failed us!

In this case, it has -- though for other reasons. The picture of Jesse Owens after the 1936 Olympics was bleak. Franklin Roosevelt never congratulated Owens, careful not to offend racist voters in the Southern United States. By 1946, lacking any promotional contracts, Owens was a sideshow act, racing against horses for money. Several years later he was working as a gas-station attendant just to make ends meet. In 1966, following bankruptcy and tax evasion charges, the United States' appetite for black inspirational figures began to change. The government appointed Owens as a goodwill ambassador, parading him around the globe as an example of American success. Only now has the U.S. public truly begun to revere Owens' role as a history maker.

The fact is that Owens' performance would have been similarly inspirational in any American city in 1936. Racial segregation was a fact of life, the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups still held significant political power in many jurisdictions, and Jim Crow laws prevented most black Americans from voting in elections. Jackie Robinson wouldn't compete in Major League Baseball for another 11 years. Even then, he faced tremendous discrimination from fans and players alike. Would a black athlete have been allowed to compete in a hypothetical 1936 Atlanta Olympics?

Skin color is outwardly obvious, and race cannot be forced into a closet. The IOC does not consider defending the human rights of racial minorities political speech like it does statements in defense of the human rights of LGBT persons. LGBT athletes in Sochi will have the "luxury" of repression. They can conceal their identities, hide their significant others, and stand silently on the medal platform, all while bringing millions of dollars to television networks and, undoubtedly, to an increasingly powerful, repressive, and dangerous Russian regime. Their other choice, of course, is to speak out, forcing them to choose self over country, all while shouldering the tremendous physical expectations of their respective sports.

Is it not punishment to force LGBT athletes and straight allies to perform for the world from a place that detests their very existence and goes out of its way to provoke discrimination against them? Perhaps they should refrain from going at all, ensuring a hetero-only Olympics. Should we really ask LGBT athletes and fans to risk arrest and detainment in a foreign country simply because of their sexual orientation?

The IOC isn't worried. Gays are a minority. There is no all-gay state competing in these Games to rise up and demand equal rights.

Russia isn't worried either. Whether or not it bothers to arrest athletes or fans in Sochi, Russia will easily ignore any voice calling for the protection of LGBT rights and dignity, just as it has done with most human rights advocates for two decades under Putin. Even if a gay athlete dared to raise a rainbow flag during a medal ceremony in Sochi, the memory would fade, and the state would continue to hurl vitriol into the future. Giving Russia the grandest stage to do it may only embolden them as it did Nazi Germany in 1936.

Olympic organizers and participants have an opportunity to take a stand for human rights. Human rights are inherent. Human rights are apolitical. Merely hoping for an inspirational moment to present itself during the Games isn't fair to anyone. By moving the Olympics to another location, or demanding that Russia repeal its discriminatory laws, we can avoid endangering athletes and fans and simultaneously celebrate all our athletes' accomplishments. Those of us who support LGBT rights would be just as inspired by a gay champion in Canada as we would be by a gay champion in Russia. To that extent, in Vancouver we'd be able to openly cheer for them in person.

Maybe the world should stop hoping for a Jesse Owens moment this winter. There is no gay Jesse Owens in Sochi.