Last Thursday, when Google changed the doodle on its home page to a rainbow flag, it seemed the entire world was aligning against Russia for its anti-gay laws.
For months, governments, corporations, and athletes from around the world had loudly denounced the laws. And why not? The Olympic charter, after all, proclaims that everyone should have the right “of practicing sport, without discrimination and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.”
But events of the past few days have demonstrated that the matter isn’t quite that simple.
Last week, the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion, a Toronto-based group which advocates for the marginalized, published a video that sought to leaven the gay rights conversation. Featuring two men in black spandex suiting up for a doubles luge run, then rocking back and forth against each other in slow-motion before launching down the track, the 30-second ad - set to Human League’s 1982 hit “Don’t You Want Me” – concludes with the line: “The games have always been a little bit gay. Let’s fight to keep them that way.”
The cheeky spot has not been universally acclaimed. Many on social media – including on YouTube, where it has been seen more than four million times – said it mocked athletes. Some commenters who identified themselves as gay said the ad made them uncomfortable in the way it sexualized the sport.
On Tuesday, a number of U.S. lugers told the New York Times they were upset by the ad and the way it played on the same aspect of the sport that late-night comedians frequently ridicule. “We’re two dudes, laying on top of each other in spandex,” Preston Griffall told the paper. “Of course people are going to make fun of it.”
Matthew Mortensen added: “Whether it’s Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O’Brien or anyone, doubles luge is always the target...It’s never about football players taking a snap or whatever. We’ve heard all this stuff before.”
Mortensen’s comments about football may be more insightful than he intended. Even before the first weekend of the Sochi Games was over, Missouri football prospect Michael Sam gave a series of media interviews announcing he is gay.
While people from across the U.S., including the White House, cheered Sam’s decision to come out, which could make him the first openly gay player in the NFL, analysts predicted the move will limit his professional prospects. On Monday, Sports Illustrated reported that eight NFL personnel executives and coaches it had polled “believed that Sam’s announcement will cause him to drop in the draft.”
Professional sport has a notoriously ambivalent attitude toward LGBTQ players. The National Hockey League does not have a player who publicly identifies as gay. Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out last spring, has not been signed to a contract for the current season – though some suggest that has more to do with his diminished ability than his sexuality.
Still, if North American athletes want to fight against discrimination, they don’t need to go all the way to Russia to do so.
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