Gay Athletes

Culture Wars at the Olympics


Faster. Higher. Stronger. It’s the Olympic motto and a shortlist of mythic he-man virtues of sports everywhere. No wonder big-time athletics has been such a vexed arena for women. That goes double for gay athletes. From National Football League locker rooms to European soccer grandstands, sports remains contested ground in the fight between gay-rights supporters and opponents. The conflict even spread the Olympics. When Russia last June outlawed public expressions of support for homosexuality, the Sochi Winter Games became a global battleground.

The Situation

Russian legislators overwhelmingly approved a bill last year imposing fines for disseminating “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. That made the Olympics of 2014 a mirror of contemporary political tensions just as other Olympic Games have been, notably in 1936, 1968, 1972 and 1980. The International Olympic Committee invoked the Olympic Charter to insist that the Sochi Games must be kept politics-free. Athletes vowed to express support for gay rights, invoking the same Olympic Charter’s sixth principle of Olympism, which proclaims that “any form of discrimination” is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” At the games, though, protests by athletes were few and muted.

The Background

Only a few male professional athletes have declared their homosexuality. In April 2013, Jason Collins, a 12-year National Basketball Association veteran, became the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport. A month later, Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay man to play in a top North American pro league when he appeared for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Thomas Hitzlsperger, a member of the 2006 German World Cup team, announced he was gay in January, three months after retiring from soccer. Michael Sam, a college football star at the University of Missouri, said in February that he was gay, putting him on course to become the first openly gay player in the NFL when he enters the 2014 league draft. Other athletes have spoken publicly about homophobic attitudes around them. Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe says he was released by the NFL team for supporting same-sex marriage. Four days before the 2013 Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver said a gay player would not be welcome in the team’s locker room. The 49ers quickly released a statement rejecting Culliver’s comments. Two months later, three college football players said they were asked about their sexual orientation by NFL teams leading up to the 2013 draft. New York’s attorney general pressured the NFL into boosting its efforts to fight discrimination and forcing all teams to undergo training. There have been more openly gay women in top-level sports, including tennis champion Martina Navratilova and basketball player Brittney Griner, a three-time All-American at Baylor University who was the first pick in the Women’s NBA draft last April.

The Argument

Russia’s law against gay “propaganda” doesn’t appear to be controversial at home. Russian President Vladimir Putin says it’s “about protecting children” and 88 percent of Russians say they support it. Many nations have registered disapproval and several world leaders did not attend the Sochi Olympics because of the law. U.S. President Barack Obama stayed away, and pointedly included gay former athletes in the official U.S. delegation, including the tennis star Billie Jean King and skating’s Brian Boitano. (King couldn’t attend because of an illness in her family.) International sponsors of the Olympics, including Coca-Cola, GE, Panasonic and Samsung, said they raised the issue with the IOC.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics: 2014 Edition by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky.
  • Pew Research Center’s 2013 report: The Global Divide on Homosexuality.
  • Bloomberg Markets magazine article on Russia’s struggle with HIV in its February 2014 issue.
  • Bloomberg News article on gay rights groups targeting Putin and Olympics sponsors in December 2013.
  • Russian Public Opinion Research Center’s June 2013 poll on the law banning gay propaganda.
  • Principle 6 campaign website.
  • Olympics coverage from

First Published Jan. 21, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Rob Gloster in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at