Less than 200 Days to Sochi: Who will be the gay Jesse Owens?


One of the enduring images from the 1936 Berlin Olympics is that of Jesse Owens standing on the top of the podium after winning gold, another athlete standing behind him (and the entire crowd) giving the Nazi salute.  It is this image that Harvey Fierstein invokes at the close of his Op-Ed piece for The New York Times about Russia’s passage of several anti-gay laws in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. We are 200 days from the start of the Games and Russia appears to be doing everything it can to take away rights from the LGBT community and to piss off the international community.

Sport. 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Mens Long Jump. Medal Ceremony. USA's Jesse Owens, centre, salutes the flag after winning the Gold medal, with left, Naoto Tajima, Japan (Bronze medal), right, Lutz Long, Germany, (silver medal).Getty Images

Russia recently passed a law outlawing “homosexual propaganda” which includes anything indicating that being gay is okay, that gay relationships are equal to straight ones, or making any pro-gay statements.  A group of Dutch filmmakers has just been questioned under this law. Russia also outlawed adoption of Russian children by people, (gay and straight, couples and individuals),  who live in countries where there is any type of marriage equality. Another law gives the police the power to arrest tourists and foreign nationals for being gay, or accused of being gay, or simply “pro-gay.” Once arrested they can be held for up to 14 days and deported.

If you want a taste, a bitter one, of the impact of some of these laws and on the atmosphere for gay people in Russia, take a look at some of these pictures (some are violent and disturbing). Into this environment come the Olympics. Fierstein’s Op-Ed invokes the 1936 Games. Those Games were threatened with boycott when Hitler decreed that only whites and non-Jews could compete. He relented and the Games became an advertisement for Germany, a distraction from the growing threat that would eventually take the lives of millions in the death camps and from the fighting of World War II.

It’s a powerful comparison, one of the world failing to check a power hungry leader leading to genocide, and its one that will surely stir debate about whether the U.S. and other countries should boycott the Olympics.  Would a massive boycott of the 1936 Games derailed Hitler?  We’ll never know. Will a boycott of the Sochi Games stop Putin and Russia’s quest to punish the LGBT community any way it can?  That remains to be seen.  But it all bears our attention and our activism.

Even putting aside the boycott debate, how can gay Olympians feel secure in competing in a country that has threatened to jail them simply for being open about their sexuality?  Out speed skater Blake Skjellerup of New Zealand says he plans to compete while wearing a rainbow pin. He will likely not be the only athlete who refuses to give up a lifelong dream for fear of being jailed, but he and other athletes need help from the IOC, which likes to make toothless statements condemning all sorts of things without any action, and from their countries who hold the power to challenge Russia. Will he, or another out athlete stand on the podium as Jesse Owens did in 1936, to challenge the notion that LGBT people are lesser?

Short Track Speed Skating - Day 13Getty Images

The Olympics bring the world’s attention to any country who hosts the Games. This winter that country will be Russia, and when the eyes of the world turn to watch the athletes compete for their countries, will those eyes actually see what is happening in the host nation or will we be too blinded by spectacle and pageantry to pay attention to the terrifying reality?

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