Q is for Queer Olympians

Dutee Chand, Olympic sprinter whose successful sports arbitration dispute may help erode false gender stereotypes. Photo at wikipedia.

Imagine if you were the most talented athlete in your town, your college, your country. You could qualify for the Olympics, but you have fathered a child, which in this alternate reality disqualifies you as an athlete. So you hide the fact that you have a child, for decades, until after your competing days are over.

Imagine you are excessively tall, as a sprinter. You win race after race, but as talk about your future Olympic performance rises, an athlete from another country complains about unfairness. The IOC passes a rule that limits the height of sprinters so that no one can take advantage.

Imagine that you are a male diver who competes with grace and stamina unparalleled among your peers. You started ballet with your sisters at age three, just so your parents didn’t have to drive you to a separate day care, but you thrived. Now, your dance background has helped you excel at your sport. However, because of your fondness for pastel, others begin questioning your gender, and competitors claim you might have hyperfemigenism, which would give you a competitive advantage. The IOC subjects you to invasive medical screening, then decrees that you must take hormones, despite any evidence that hyperfemigenism is an advantage.

Welcome to being an LGBTQ athlete.

Hiding Your Whole Self

These scenarios may sound farfetched, but gay athletes compete in a sporting environment that is unwelcome at best and, at worst, hostile, invasive of privacy, or criminalized. The first few athletes whose sexuality was revealed faced insults, rumors, death threats, and even worse.

The 3rd Reich loved Olympic medals unless you were gay. Photo of Otto Peltzer from Wikipedia.

For example, Otto Peltzer, a German runner holding world records in the sprints, competed in the Games of 1928 and 1932. However, when the Games came to Berlin in 1936, instead of running for the Fatherland, he was arrested for being gay and sent to the Camps. Or consider Stella Walsh, a Polish-American who won sprinting gold and silver. When she was murdered in an Ohio parking lot 40 years later, the press learned that she was intersex (had characteristics of both genders). Instead of lamenting her tragic death, editorials suggested her medals be stripped. It’s no wonder that athletes for decades kept their private life hidden.

In the 1980s, the negative consequences for gay athletes intensified with HIV/AIDS. When people joked publicly that gay stood for “got AIDS yet?” they made it clear that being gay was a death sentence. It’s no wonder that diver Greg Louganis hid his HIV status for seven years after winning back-to-back double golds. When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had tested positive for HIV, his popularity helped shift attitudes about the disease. Yet when he planned to take part in Barcelona 1992 with the Dream Team, there were absurd and uninformed suggestions that Johnson might infect other players with a particularly aggressive post up maneuver.

What’s the Big Deal?

One old argument is that the LGBTQ athlete should focus on their sport, rather than their personal life. Why say anything about it, when it’s just going to be a distraction? Just compete and shut up. My response is to suggest you look up a photo of decathlete Ashton Eaton. Half the photos are of Ashton with his wife, Brianna, also an Olympic medalist. Athletes are also people who have families. For an athlete to be unable to go into the stands and hug their husband or wife after a win is a kind of discrimination. That was why it was a joy in the 2016 Rio Beach Volleyball tournament when Brazillian Larissa Franca was shown giving her wife a big kiss after advancing to the semifinals.

Larissa Franca hugs her wife in Rio 2016 after winning a match. She and her volleyball partner, Juliana Felisberta, lost a close match for the bronze medal. Photo by Washington Post.

The other big disadvantage for gay athletes is loss of sponsorships. When openly gay Australian diver Matthew Mitcham won a gold medal in 2008 Beijing, he was lauded by the country. But at home, it was a different story. He couldn’t get the sponsorship deals that straight divers were getting. On executive said, “If [we] have a choice between Mitcham and a straight diver, gold-winning athlete, most companies would probably go with the straight one.” Greg Louganis could have told him so.

Up until very recently, homosexuality was also illegal in many countries (still is, in 73 of them). Athletes could be jailed, in theory. Even if their country supported them in competitions, athletes often had to sign a morality clause. When Canadian Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury wanted to come out in 1992, his agent warned him not to ever mention it again. He was a highly-sought, highly-paid motivational speaker who agonized between living a lie and his career. Ultimately, he came out when a sponsor cancelled a lucrative tour because closeted Tewksbury still just seemed “too gay.”

Kerron Clement was “tired of loving in the dark.” Photo from Yahoosports.com.

Unsung Heroes

Given the hostile environment, very few athletes are public about their LGBTQ status while competing. Many come out years later or after the bulk of their Olympic career is over. The most recent disclosure of Kerron Clement, gold medalist in the 400 m hurdles at Rio, marks him as the first Track and Field athlete to be gay in public. But he did it seventeen years into his track career.

My new favorite athlete of the week has to be Robert Dover, who I did not know until today was the first openly gay Olympian. Dover won four bronze medals for Team USA in Dressage (yes, it’s a valid sport, see letter “E” for Equestrian). He came out in 1988, even during the middle of the AIDS hysteria and media frenzy over Billie Jean and Martina. He was simply matter of fact about it: I’m the token Jewish gay boy on the U.S. Olympic team. It likely attracted less attention because it was dressage, but all the more reason to help open the closet door for others.

Robert Dover, four-time Dressage medalist. Photo at Outsports.

The most decorated openly LGBTQ athlete today has to be speed skater Irene Wüst of the Netherlands. Wüst has eleven Olympic medals–five gold–and was the highest medal winner in the entire 2014 Sochi Games. Most of her medals were won in the three Games after she revealed that she had a girlfriend. Still, she has been irritated on the constant focus on her sexuality rather than her athletics, saying: “You are not asking [ Dutch skater] Sven Kramer about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.”

Some “out and proud” sites have started keeping lists of LGBTQ athletes, with the list having more than a few names in 2008 and getting longer every year. It’s phenomenal that winning athletes like Adam Rippon and Megan Rapinoe have even used their visibility and success as a platform to take on their critics and to advocate for fairness. But there’s still one area where opinion and prejudice–prejudging–still looms large over sport, and that’s the subject of gender testing.

The Unfair Advantage Argument

I should note that my own views on the topic of transgender or intersex athletes in sport is evolving. If my expertise (or lack thereof) on the topic wades into ignorance, forgive me. I myself long took it for granted that the Olympics should compete on a level playing field, and that any athlete with something “extra,” such as extra male hormones, would have an unfair advantage over others. However, that argument is wrong on several fronts.

Should we disallow the unfair advantage of athletes with bodies’ suited to their sport? Photo at insider.com.

First off, when athletes have body types that give them an advantage, the Olympics have not banned them but embraced them. Usain Bolt has been able to dominate in the sprints–in part–because he has legs longer than other people. He doesn’t have to take as many strides. Michael Phelps (as German swimmer Michael Gross before him) has unusually long arms that help him dominate at the butterfly.

Moreover, when it comes to the case of women (or men) having different chromosomes, differing hormones, or different muscular structure, the assumed scientific link between the “different” and the “better” just isn’t there. We know this because of Dutee Chand.

The Bravery of Dutee Chand

Chand was an Indian sprinter who rose to prominence for winning 100 and 200 sprints at the 2014 World Junior Championships, hoping to work her way towards an Olympic berth in Rio 2016. However, in 2014 the IAAF determine that she failed “gender testing.” After subjecting her to a battery of additional (invasive) tests, they declared her ineligible to compete due to hyperandrogenism. She fought back through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), arguing in part that: 1) there was no demonstrated relationship between women having high testosterone and enhanced athletic performance; 2) there were no scientific studies linking hyperandrogenism to athletic performance; and 3) factors other than hormone levels could account for improved performance.

She won her case, forcing the IAAF to lift the ban and allow her to compete. At Rio, she became only the third Indian woman to compete in the sprints, although she did not move past the heats. Strangely enough, the loss seemed to prove her point. If hyperandrogenism would turn every female into Wonder Woman, shouldn’t she be beating everybody?

Yet, while fighting the case, Chand was submitted to constant criticism in the press and social media, who put every detail of her private life under a microscope. It’s one thing to claim that athletes who hold hands in public be subject to photographs. It’s another for sporting bodies to order invasive medical tests, then leak those to the press.

Not Such a Long Way Baby

Ultimately, the problem seems to hearken back to the unevolved attitudes about women in sports, period. Recall that de Coubertin himself said that women competing would be “unaesthetic and improper.” Since the Games was reestablished in 1896, the IOC has treated women as second-class citizens, first limiting the opportunities for them to compete, then subjecting them to differing standards. Under the guise of making competitions “fair,” the IOC requires women to undergo additional testing and has established an arbitrary limit to what constitutes a proper amount of hormones. As Chand and others argue, there is no upper limit for testosterone in men, though to carry through the argument, men with excess testosterone might have an advantage over others with “normal” levels.

Also, only some athletes are scrutinized–athletes from developing countries, with different skin color, or who are publicly LGBTQ–only some seem to take the brunt of the focus. When Caster Semenya, double-gold medalist in the 800m, started winning by large margins, her competitors complained that she just didn’t look female. Thus began decades of scrutiny and court fights for Semenya, whose every race is conducted practically under a spotlight of interrogation. There are plenty of other athletes who improve their times dramatically, are muscular, or are so far ahead of everyone else. No one claims that Katie Ledecky, the American swimmer who has shattered world records, or Simone Biles, the muscular gymnast who won multiple golds at Rio, are undeserving of accolades because they’re so much better.

Yet when Semenya won the gold at Rio, one racer cried foul because “there’s nothing I can do,” and the fifth place winner made a show of saying she was the “first European” to “win.” When we look to applaud the remarkable advancement of attitudes about LGBTQ athletes across the Olympic decades, it’s easy to see that the battle to end discrimination isn’t over yet.

Caster Semenya is still fighting.

This post continues the A to Z Challenge using the Olympic theme:

P is for Pentathlon

Modern Pentathlon: Elitist? Bizarre? Outmoded? Rollicking Fun, I say! Photo from bbc.co.uk.

No one’s ever actually seen the pentathlon. Except the athletes and the judges (presumably) who participate. Primetime U.S. TV has never shown so much as a still photo of the winner, and even the back cable channels limit the images to the finish line and medal ceremony. This is partly because Americans don’t place well, not to mention that the sports are odd choices, the guidelines are obscure, and the leader board requires a supercomputer to evaluate. It’s the bailiwick of Swedes, Hungarians, and Germans, so who cares, other than the Swedes, Hungarians and Germans? Yet, Nordic Cross-Country is also full of Swedes and Germans, and at least those races are televised. The pentathlon is complicated, it’s elitist, it’s old-fashioned, but … it’s also rip-roaring fun!

Even for the Greeks, It Sounded Like a Bar Bet

OK, Pheiades, you threw that stick longer than I did, but I jumped farther.
Yeah, Glaucus, but my discus beat yours.
But my stick beat your stick by much more than your discus beat my discus.
Hmmm…race you to that olive tree….*pant…pant*… you koprophagos! You got a head start.
Well, that’s two wins apiece. How are we going to–
Wrestle ya for it…*aggh urgh*… I win!
How about best 2 out of 3?… Best 3 out of 5…4 out of…? Where are you going?

The Greek Pentathlon.
Continue reading “P is for Pentathlon”

O is for Olympia

Homage to the Olympic Torch; photos start from 2020 and go back in time. Video by kajmeister; music & photo credits available.

Sports help us tell time. Games give us heroes, distracting entertainments, and opportunities for gambling. We enact statues to the winners and turn games into myths with exaggeration and tropes–GOAT, threepeat, the favorite, the Cinderella story. Sports are full of pageantry, like religious ceremonies.

No wonder we miss them so much. It’s not just about the contest.

Ancient ruins at Olympia, Greece. Photo from OlympiaToursGreece.gr.

We Would Be In the Fourth Year of the 31st Olympiad

The Greeks knew this, which is why the Olympic Games were rooted in a religious festival that spawned athletic contests, which in turn created a way to count the years. An olympiad was a four-year interval, and the Greeks would refer to the third year in the 113th Olympiad, and so on.

The city of Olympia, located in northwestern Greece, was the site of a cult of Zeus. Originally, a complex of temples, stadia, and markets stretched across this woody set of hills near the Ionian Sea. The Temples for Zeus and Hera came first, then some small athletic venues for running and jumping. Things really got architecturally involved when they brought in the chariot races, somewhere along in 17 AD (the 198th Olympiad?). By then, the Altis (sacred site) had sprawled to a dozen acres. Kind of like Las Vegas.

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N is for Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi was a beast. There’s just no other words for him. Nine gold medals.

I feel great chagrin for crafting an alphabetically-driven post about running so soon after my discussion of the Kenyans and my rant about the Metric Mile. I considered finding another appropriate topic for “N” but … NINE GOLD MEDALS! (Twelve overall). And he would probably have won more, if he hadn’t–because crowds flocked to see a man considered perhaps the world’s greatest athlete–if he hadn’t been paid.

Sorry, gentle readers, that Nurmi starts with an “N.” Attention must be paid to the Flying Finn.

Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” the “Phantom Finn,” the fault-finding, fleet-footed, fractious Finn. Photo by RacingPast.com.

Mo Farah, Call Us When You Double Your Medal Count

Put Paavo Nurmi’s nine gold medals (plus three silvers) in perspective. Mo Farah, considered the greatest distance runner of our generation, only has four gold medals in distance running. Now, it is true that Michael Phelps does have 28 freaking medals, 23 gold. No one’s going to come close to that number. I’ll talk about that when I get to the letter “U.” But in his five Olympics, Phelps was able to enter in 30 races, including 12 relays. Swimmers simply have more opportunities for medals. Nurmi entered 12 races; 12 medals.

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M is for Meter (not Mile)

For all of you who are big Hamilton fans or fancy yourself knowledgeable about U.S. history, you ought to be able to tell which of the Founding Fathers was the biggest francophile, the guy who thought France was the bee’s knees.

Joseph Dombey, French metrics expert, and Thomas Jefferson, French expert who was metri-curious. Photo at NPR.org.

You recognized old Tom Jefferson, naturally, who said:

In what country on earth would you rather live?—certainly in my own…What would be my second choice?—France.

Jefferson’s Autobiography, 1821

Where do you suppose the metric system got its start? That’s right: France. So why in the heck, given that Jefferson loved France, and France loved measuring things in hundredths, and Pierre de Coubertin was also French and gung ho on the Olympics, why in the heck do they run a “metric mile” which isn’t even a mile? It might be due to simple circular reasoning. Or pirates.

Continue reading “M is for Meter (not Mile)”