Olympic Problem

Johnny Weir, US Nationals, 2010

Olympism, the Olympic Charter asserts, places “sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” “The Olympic Movement” is utopian. It is a dream of a perfect world. As such, it maps our actual imperfections. It is an inventory of the things the Olympicist want to change, to erase. The International Olympics Committee dreams of an apolitical spectacle. An ideology free zone. It dreams of pure performance, pure spectacle – a pure market.

Rule 50 of the Olympics Charter declares:

No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. (p. 91)


No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games, except for the identification – as defined in paragraph 8 below – of the manufacturer of the article or equipment concerned, provided that such identification shall not be marked conspicuously for advertising purposes. (p. 92)

It is not unusual for sports organizations to ban “politics” from the field: FIFA has similar rules. But there is no such thing as an apolitical space – and there is no greater indication of the ideological intensity of that space than the prohibition of “politics” from it.

This will only become more and more painfully obvious as we move closer to the Sochi Olympics. In June, the Russian legislature decided to make homosexuality become, by law, the love that dare not speak its name. The law criminalizes homosexual “propaganda,” especially when manifested in front of children. As Miriam Elder, writing for The Guardian, put it:

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.

People identified as promoting “non-traditional” sexuality are now criminals. What does it mean to promote a sexuality? What is gay propaganda? It is to signal that LGBT people exist. Queer existence is queer propaganda. The contemporary Russian political landscape is one in which the country’s citizens are being encouraged to harass, molest, and beat LGBT people.

In her article for The Guardian, the Russian journalist Masha Gessen describes the political climate in chilling detail:

In March, the St Petersburg legislator who had become a spokesman for the law started mentioning me and my “perverted family” in his interviews. I contacted an adoption lawyer asking whether I had reason to worry that social services would go after my family and attempt to remove my oldest son, whom I adopted in 2000. The lawyer wrote back telling me to instruct my son to run if he is approached by strangers and concluding: “The answer to your question is at the airport.”

Already, the IOC has promised to enforce its rules prohibiting political statements (on a case by case basis, “depending on what is said and done”). These officials will have to ask themselves: What constitutes a political statement in a context in which merely being is at stake?

It is not unusual for sports leagues to ban lesbian and gay sports teams as “political.” To call yourself a gay or lesbian team is to draw attention to the homophobic baseline of sports culture. It is a political move, made in opposition to the dominant political culture that is already there, naturalized and invisible as just the way things are. It is no accident, in other words, that the language of the IOC’s ban against “political propaganda” from its spectacle mirrors the ban of “homosexual propaganda” from Russian life. These two bans are related: they are ruses, meant to produce a select group of people as the guardians of a pure life, free from political influence.

Few athletes are more tuned into this weird political density of homosexuality’s proximity to politics than figure skater Johnny Weir. One could not invent this story: that one of the sports world’s most famous, most famously gay athletes would be trying to qualify for Russian Olympics; that he would, furthermore be married to a Russian man. That he would be as much a Russophile as a homosexual: Weir doesn’t just speak Russian. He can write in Russian. His television show features segments in which he is interviewed by his drag alter ego – a female Russian journalist. His attachment to Russia, as both a real and an imagined place, is no small part of his identity.

Weir is more than an out gay athlete. Weir’s mode of performance is itself queer as he embraces the flamboyant, the sequined, the fey and the effeminate on and off the ice. Throughout his career, he’s dealt with the consequences: figure skating theatricalizes gender. Gender is an explicit part of its structure. Men’s figure skating is anxious (see Erica Rand’s book on these subjects): Weir’s athleticism – which isn’t in the least bit conflicted – draws out the contradictions of his sport, and throws its anxious masculinity into brilliant relief.

Watching Weir compete is exhilarating because Weir’s comportment, his manner of speaking, his way of dressing – is gay. Out, proud, fabulous and athletic. The three-time US champion is a fantastic athlete. He is FIERCE on the ice and who knew, until he came along, that that kind of fierce could be in the Olympics? He is a spectacle. And as you listen to commentators stammer – trying to figure out just how to narrate his fabulousness without sounding, well, too gay (and so, instead, they just sound uncomfortable-to-homophobic) – that’s political.

When asked if he’d wear a pin, or make some kind of visible gesture at the Olympics (should he qualify), Weir has said no. He has also expressed his opposition to a boycott and to moving the Olympics. He’s said he wants to keep that kind of politics out of his performance – but he’s also said that in Russia, he could be arrested for walking to Starbucks. For looking at a man. For wearing the things he wears. That he might not be issued a visa even if he is on the Olympic team. And he’s not waiting for the Olympics to test the situation: he is performing in St. Petersburg in the fall. He’s a star in Russia. (See Weir’s writing: “The Gaylimpics”).

He’s taken a lot of criticism for his stand on boycotts – for his scathing critique of the idea that boycotting Russian vodka is a meaningful political gesture. Perhaps it takes an athlete to question our desire for a political spectacle to happen inside a space we consume as apolitical. Perhaps it takes someone in the middle of all that to remind us that even that gesture will be absorbed by that spectacle’s economy. What is a rainbow flag, pinned to a uniform manufactured by Adidas? I hope I see them everywhere. But, much as we might wish otherwise, such a thing won’t have the symbolic force of seeing Tommy Smith and John Carlos raise their gloved fists in a black power salute from the medal stand in 1968. It just won’t.

What would be meaningful within the context of the Olympic spectacle? Making the Olympics as queer as possible, as visibly as possible – you would have to make the Olympics themselves into a protest for the Olympics themselves to do something. Athletes would have to kiss each other, full on make out with each other to get close to what those two raised fists meant and did. Police would have to drag them from the stands. The spectacle itself must be interrupted. It must fall apart: its politics must tear apart at the seams. It must collapse on itself.

There is no such thing as an apolitical Olympics if only because there is always the possibility that it will become exactly what its mythology promises but its administration denies – an occasion for demanding that things be different. Every Olympics, every World Cup now contains this problem. A problem of Olympic order.


  1. Would love to see Nike alter the swoosh to rainbow. Still identifying the manufacturer while making a pretty visible statement.

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