Why the 2018 Winter Olympics are significant for LGBT athletes

Shae Slaughter

The fanfare surrounding the Olympics is nothing new. Every two years, either the summer or winter games provide a perfect setting for the world to come together. Perhaps more importantly, the Olympics allow people from different races, religions and identities to truly connect. The focus of each Olympic cycle is always different, but this year, the winter games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, are highlighting something particularly important: LGBT athletes.

In the U.S., this spotlight might seem like old news because many people believe that LGBT people already have rights, but that’s not necessarily the case. Yes, the LGBT community has come a long way, but that doesn’t mean they have it the same as “straight” people do. Not by a long shot.

It is nearly impossible to know how many people in the world are actually LGBT. According to The Guardian, even in 2018 there are many countries—including Russia, Iraq, Egypt and Iran—that make it virtually impossible to identify as anything other than straight. There are also many people who might believe they fall on the non-binary scale but are unwilling to identify as such for various reasons. Even with those deterrents, Gallup News found that 4.1 percent of the U.S. population identified itself as LGBT. 

This self-identified population is not huge by any means, but it still leaves room to wonder how there have been so few openly LGBT Olympic athletes. As far as records go, the Smithsonian credits the first openly gay athlete as John Curry, an English figure skater in the 1976 Olympics. But still, that’s a tenuous claim because Curry was not actually an “out” gay man when he performed. Rather, he was outed soon after he won the gold medal. 

In fact, there is an array of athletes who have come out after their time in the games, whether by choice or by force. It’s likely that some athletes dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks were actually LGBT during competition and either never came out or only did so after they were done competing. Of course, while our modern society is arguably comparatively accepting, there still are disproportionately few “out” athletes. It begs the question, why do people feel so compelled to hide the way they identify?

Unfortunately, it is not that hard to answer that question. People are judgmental. People are set in their ways. People are cruel. When Curry was outed, people began to question his masculinity and his virility in a way they had not done prior to the reveal of his sexual identity. A similar effect has occurred for women who have identified as lesbian. For example, tennis star Billie Jean King lost all of her endorsements when she came out. 

Noting this, it isn’t surprising that a decade ago at the Beijing Summer Olympics, only 0.001 percent of the athletes who competed were openly gay. Fortunately, in the 2018 games, we’re seeing that trend begin to change little by little with a record number of 14 openly out athletes. Already, Adam Rippon has made U.S. history by being the first openly gay man to medal in the Winter Olympics. Rippon is not alone, though: Canadian skater Eric Radford is now the first openly gay Winter Olympics champion, winning gold with his partner, Meagan Duhamel. 

With this trend toward openness, Pyeongchang is making a new and better type of history. LGBT athletes have likely been competing in the Olympics since the games’ inception, and it is crucial to keep this positive momentum going. There is no reason for these athletes to hide their sexuality, nor does the way they identify take away from their incredible skill.