You Can Play and Grantland Look at Sochi Olympics From Unique Perspective

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Last summer, I heard someone in the LGBT sports community describe the Sochi Games as “an opportunity.” It’s an interesting perspective, and certainly one that summarizes that awkward position advocacy groups such as You Can Play are often thrust into. A person who views the granting of a worldwide spectacle to a country that outlaws, imprisons, brutalizes, and kills its LGBT population is either a tremendous cynic or a tremendous optimist. The optimists envisioned ways to utilize the games to create worldwide change and to draw attention to the suffering of LGBT Russians. The cynics saw the opportunity for marketing campaigns to raise their own “brand awareness”, a photo op for Americans wanting to draw attention to their own work. Either way, You Can Play had decisions to make on how we wanted to approach the Sochi games.

We looked at a variety of projects, protests, and campaigns created around the oppression of LGBT Russians. Most were poorly conceived. Some were clever, but too subtle to have any sort of worldwide impact (Not everyone speaks English, guys). Some were bold and grand, but logistically and practically flawed. Some were interesting, but put athletes or advocates at tremendous risk. Some were outright exploitation of the suffering of the LGBT community in Sochi to further some other self-serving end. Some we simply weren’t invited to be a part of. Very few of the groups or campaigns had any plans for continuing to help LGBT Russians after the Olympics ended. Fundamentally, we were faced with options that did very little to help the long-term situation of the LGBT community in Sochi. We refuse to be a group who stood side by side on the worldwide Olympic stage with LGBT Russians, only to abandon them when the closing ceremonies ended and the cameras left. The line between advocating and exploiting was razor thin, and we chose not to walk it.

So, we did our best to draw attention to real issues in Russia. We worked with governing bodies and governments to educate athletes on what was going on, and how they could get involved if they so chose. We endorsed a campaign from the city of Vancouver that would make Pride Houses mandatory for future games, hoping to ensure future protections for LGBT Olympians. We sold some Russian merchandise, and gave all the proceeds to the Russian Freedom Fund, one of the few groups that will continue to work in Russia long after the last medal is given out. You will probably see some of our pins or hats in Russia, as many of our supporters asked to bring some with them. But fundamentally we resigned ourselves to the unfortunate fact that we were entering the Sochi Games without any sort of campaign that met our standards of involvement.

And then one day I got a phone call. The person on the other end of the line had seen a You Can Play Invisible Athlete Forum at a college campus. They eventually tracked me down to present us with an actual opportunity. This person was a member of the LGBT community. They were going to the Olympics. Their position within the games gave them access to various parts of Sochi. They could converse with others at the games- athletes, coaches, media, staff, fans- and get a variety of perspectives on how things were going. And they wanted to write about it. They wanted You Can Play to handle logistics, editing, and explaining here in the US. If questions arose after a piece was released, they trusted “You guys. Only you guys” to be the ones to provide context from both the sports world and the LGBT community.

Unsure how much sex, violence, swearing, or words would be in each piece, we believed a newsmaking blog like Grantland* would be to the ideal site to run the pieces. Thankfully, Grantland was excited about the potential for the project, and was happy to be involved.

Potential is the key word here. To be honest, we don’t know what we’re going to get. We don’t know the chances our writer is willing to take, how much free time is in their schedule, and how comfortable they are exploring Sochi. We don’t know what the climate will be in Sochi- perhaps the Russians put on their best facade and our writer could kiss a same-sex partner on a medal stand without incident. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and our writer will be documenting the brutalization of the LGBT community on an Olympic stage. We don’t know what meetings, conversations, and interviews they will be a part of. We don’t know how much they will be able to write. They could be an athlete, with significant time restraints, unable to file articles on a deadline. They could be running a governing body and suddenly get busy with day to day responsibilities. They could win a gold medal and spend two weeks getting drunk and showing it to people. They could be arrested and deported. We simply don’t know what we are going to get.

We do know that this is the perfect campaign for You Can Play and directly in line with our mission. The climate for the LGBT community in the sports world has shifted rapidly in the past few years, and that is due to the increasing ability and willingness of the LGBT members of the sports world to share their stories. You Can Play’s highest priority is in identifying and amplifying the voices of those whose stories may not have always been heard. Our greatest hope is that through this diary, readers will be exposed to the day to day experiences of a forcibly closeted LGBT person in the sports world. And that is the type of potential that You Can Play will always support.

*We wanted uncensored longform stories on sports, and our goals fit with what they offered. The discussions were in the works before the recent “Magic Putter” piece ran. That piece, which outed a trans woman against her express wishes (amongst other issues which have been analyzed in depth), did cause use to reconsider using Grantland. We were (and remain) openly critical of the piece itself, and Christina Kahrl of our Advisory Board was especially active in the media response to the piece. Our discussions in the wake of the piece with our board members, friends, and supporters lead us to choose to remain with Grantland. Our hope is that by encouraging more familiarity with LGBT issues and working with them to provide better reporting on LGBT sports issues, Grantland can become another vehicle through which the LGBT sports community can share their stories.