Sunday, 22 July 2012

Olympic Countdown

Maybe it’s because the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010 were the most recent that I enjoyed them the most. Or it could just be family loyalty – my grandfather lived in Canada and I still have cousins there. It could also be because of a lot of lgbt coverage given to the Pride Houses by the media (more of which later).

Lgbt involvement in the Vancouver Olympics began before they own their bid for the games in 1998. The first Chair of the bid committee was Vancouver-born Olympic bronze medallist Marion Lay. She competed in Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968. The pressures and demands of being Chair led to Marion leaving the post before the bid was won, but she remained involved as the Vancouver city representative on the Organising Committee’s board of directors. The IOC recognised Marion’s contribution to sport in 2001 by awarding her the Women and Sport Trophy for the Americas.

These definitely felt like a more gay-friendly games – except when it came to American figure skater Johnny Weir. Speculation about his sexuality had been circulating since his first Olympics in 2006. His performances were flamboyant and regarded by some as almost too camp. The Canadian media in particular thought this was enough of a reason to discuss Johnny’s sexuality on air. To his credit Johnny brushed most of this aside, rightly saying that his skating was the only thing that was important at the games.

Johnny couldn’t quite reach his 2006 5th place, finishing 6th. It wasn’t until January 2011 that he came out in his autobiography.

Johnny Weir wasn’t the only identified lgbt figure skater in Vancouver, because previous Olympic silver medallist Brian Orser was choreographer and coach to the female champion skater Yu-Na Kim.

But Johnny Weir wasn’t the only athlete in Vancouver who has since come out. New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup was out to family and friends and made no attempt to “hide” his boyfriend in the athlete’s village. Being out was relatively new to him. He had come out to his family only the previous September and, like Johnny, decided his skating performance was more important in Vancouver. Fortunately, having a gay uncle and cousin meant his family were supportive.

Blake’s best result in Vancouver was 16th place, having reached the quarter-final of the 1,000 meters. Once the games were over Blake felt comfortable enough to come out publicly the following May, the first to do so after Vancouver 2010.

Also in speed skating were 3 Dutch skaters – Renate Groenewold, Sanne van Kerkhof and Ireen Wüst. Sanne was making her Olympic debut and had been the partner of Ireen since the previous May. They didn’t compete against each other, however, because Sanne competed in the short track events and Ireen in the longer distances.

Naturally, the Canadians had high hopes of gold in the ice hockey tournament. The women’s team succeeded in holding on to their gold medals from Turin, again with Sarah Vaillancourt on the team. In the semi-finals they beat Finland who went on to beat Sweden for the bronze medal. Erika Holst made her 4th Olympic appearance in the Swedish team.

The only other lgbt gold medal in Vancouver was won by Vibeke Skofterud, the Norwegian cross-country skier. This was a personal triumph for Vibeke after recovering from an eating disorder which stopped her from competing in 2006.

Also on the ski slopes Sweden’s Anja Pärson hoped to defend her slalom gold medal but crashed out near the end. She escaped serious injury and the following day won bronze in the combined event, as she did in the previous games. This was her 6th Olympic medal, giving her the most medals of any individual female lgbt Olympian – 1 gold, 1 silver, 4 bronze (Sheryl Swoopes won 3 team golds).

Now to the Pride Houses. A previous attempt to provide a special gathering place for lgbt Olympians to relax and be themselves was in Barcelona 1992. With the Vancouver games being centred around a well-known gay ski resort at Whistler it was natural that the community there should set up a Pride House there. Whistler had been the home of Gay Ski Week since 1993.

Two Pride Houses were set up, by and the Vancouver Queer Resource Centre. Both were very successful and influenced the decision by community groups to set up a Pride House in London 2012 and Sochi 2014. The Sochi house has since been banned by the Russian courts because of its alleged bad influence on children. The London Pride House will go ahead after being rescued with support from Pridesports UK, the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation and the Federation of Gay Games.

In connection with that last named organisation, several lgbt Olympians have become Gay Games Ambassadors. I will list them all on the 30th anniversary of the Gay Games in August.

The 2012 games has already broken lgbt records, with a record 19 out athletes (and counting) gathering with their teams in London. Before the next games in Sochi 2014 I expected more London Olympians will come out, and we shall see if its possible to exceed the list of 42 lgbt athletes who were at the Sydney 2000 games.

In 5 days time the waiting will be over. But my chronicle of lgbt Olympians will continue. I’ll also reveal the lgbt involvement in the torch relay and the opening and closing ceremonies. So I hope you “stay tuned”.

For all official information on the Olympics go to

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