With the nation-by-nation parade of athletes at the Games of the XXX Olympiad, history was made – in the sports arena and in the political arena.
Two women – 800-meter runner Sarah Attar and judoist Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani – joined in the July 27 procession in London’s Olympic Stadium with the team from Saudi Arabia, a first for the conservative nation that bans women from driving or traveling without a male guardian.
And, in another first, womenoutnumber men on Team USA – 269 to 261.
The 2012 Summer Olympics are certain to bring other firsts. Human rights advocates hope the games inspire Olympians to come out as bisexual, gay or lesbian and perhaps even inspire some to seek asylum.
Far less than 1 percent of Olympians in London are out gays or lesbians. And that tiny figure isn’t due just to the elimination of softball as an Olympic sport.
In Beijing, there were just 11 out athletes going into the 2008 summer games. There also were 11 out athletes going into the Athens games in 2004 and just seven out athletes at the games in Sydney in 2000.
On the U.S. scorecard, only two openly gay men have ever competed at the Olympics – divers David Pichler and Patrick Jeffrey. Athletes don’t come out because, even in progressive nations, homophobia remains pervasive in sports. And in other nations, out athletes face more than taunts from fans and teammates.
“LGBT athletes are forced to hide their sexuality in order to get selected and compete,” stated British LGBT civil rights activist Peter Tatchell. “Otherwise they would be rejected and possibly face imprisonment.”
Eighty-four nations criminalize homosexuality. Convictions under the anti-gay laws can result in fines, imprisonment and – in Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – death.
“The International Olympic Committee and London Olympic organizers should require all competing nations to sign a pledge that they do not discriminate on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation,” Tatchell said. “If they refuse to sign, they should be denied participation in the games.”
In advance of London 2012, Tatchell and other activists called on the IOC to ban nations that outlaw homosexuality. They also appealed to athletes to come out, encouraged gay athletes who fear persecution to seek asylum and invited sports fans to cheer equality.
In the week before the opening ceremonies for London 2012, more than 14,000 athletes were arriving at Heathrow Airport and settling into the Athletes Village. The arrivals included out Olympians:
• Diver Matthew Mitcham and beach volleyball player Natalie Cook with Team Australia.
• Handball player Mayssa Pessoa with Team Brazil.
• Cyclist Judith Arndt and fencer Imke Duplitzer with Team Germany.
• Field hockey players Marilyn Agliotti, Maartje Paumen and Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel and equestrian competitor Edward Gal with Team Netherlands.
• Triathletes Carole Péon and Jessica Harrison and handball player Alexandra Lacrabère with Team France.
• Handball player Rikke Skov with Team Denmark.
• Dressage competitor Carl Hester with Team Great Britain.
• Soccer players Jessica Landström, Hedvig Lindahl and Lisa Dahlkvist with Team Sweden.
• Tennis player Lisa Raymond, basketball player Seimone Augustus, soccer coach Pia Sundhage and soccer player Meghan Rapinoe with Team USA.
“I think it’s important to be out. It’s important to stand up and be counted and be proud of who you are,” Rapinoe recently told USA Today.
Critics of the LGBT rights campaign, including critics in the United States, said the Olympics should be about sports, not politics. But activists volleyed back, saying that the Olympics have always been about politics and human rights.
“People who say that human rights issues have no place in the sporting arena tend to be those who don’t believe in human rights at all,” said Mark Stephens, a prominent British attorney and activist. “As an argument, it is the refuge of the ignorant, and therefore, ultimately, damned.”
Stephens urged the IOC to ban anti-gay nations and called on gay athletes to come out in a celebrated Guardian newspaper column and a recent speech at the University of East London, which is not far from Olympic Stadium.
He and other activists described a long tradition of politics intersecting with sport.
“An athlete even winning the gold for her country is political,” said London LGBT civil rights activist Elizabeth Mead. “But also, some of the most significant events in the games’ history were of political importance.”
Mead, 43, said her favorite Olympic moment came during the opening ceremony in 1996 in Atlanta, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron in the stadium. “He’s one of the world’s greatest athletes, but he also was suspended from his sport for objecting to the war in Vietnam.”
Other politically significant Olympic events:
• The four gold-medal wins and world-record achievements of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany.
• The bloody water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary at the 1956 Melbourne Games as Hungary was in the midst of a nationalist uprising.
• The black power salute that U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave on the medal stand at the ’68 Games in Mexico.
• The Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics that resulted in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes.
• The United States’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan; four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
• South Africa’s participation in the 1992 Olympics after being banned for years because of Apartheid rule.
• The 2000 ban imposed on Afghanistan because of the ruling Tali- ban’s discrimination against women.
Before the Olympic torch arrived in London, politics were already at work in the 2012 Summer Games.
At the U.S. Capitol, lawmakers in mid-July complained that most of Team USA is being outfitted in Ralph Lauren-designed uniforms with “Made in China” labels. U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., called the fashion decision “self-defeating.” U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said, “When America’s best athletes are representing our country on the world stage, we should be representing the best of American- made goods.”
A week before the games, Amnesty International demanded that London organizers apologize for hiring Dow Chemicals to provide the fabric wrap for the Olympic Stadium. Amnesty said organizers should have known about Dow’s ties to the company responsible for the 1984 gas leak that killed 15,000 people in Bhopal, India.
And activists were hoping that when the closing ceremonies take place on Aug. 12 that more than 21 out Olympians will be celebrating and the IOC will be looking to reforms before the 2014 Winter Games. Those games take place in Sochi, Russia, where organizers already have nixed an LGBT Pride House for athletes.
NBC holds the rights to coverage and will broadcast the games on its local affiliates. For a gay take on the games, check out www.outsports.com.