The Canadian Olympic Committee announced a major new partnership with Egale and You Can Play Dec 2 that will see the organizations promote LGBT equality and inclusion in schools across Canada and provide support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes.
Among the initiatives included are plans to update the COC’s own anti-discrimination policies and create LGBT-specific resources for its national program that sends Olympians to public schools to promote mental fitness, self-esteem and equality in sport. The COC hopes to reach more than one million students in 25 school boards over the next two years.
The idea of looking for ways in which the COC could support LGBT athletes came from discussions Christopher Overholt, the head of the COC, had with athletes when he joined the organization in 2010, but momentum for partnership grew during the controversy over the Sochi Olympics earlier this year. Russia’s anti-gay-propaganda law put LGBT athletes and Olympic fans into a difficult situation, and some LGBT activists were critical of the COC’s lack of action on the issue.
Talks began with LGBT advocacy group Egale and the LGBT sports organization You Can Play about how the COC could be a stronger ally for LGBT athletes.
The result is a partnership that’s earned strong support from current and former LGBT Olympians.
Connor Taras is a kayaker who narrowly missed competing in the 2012 Olympics but hopes to make the team for Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Earlier this year, he talked to the Toronto Star about how his struggles with being in the closet made it difficult to stay focused on training.
“You don’t want to be the first one, and you don’t want to feel isolated in sport when you’re already up against so much. It’s just one other thing that you have to worry about,” he says of coming out.
Although sports can often feel like the last bastion of homophobia in Canada, Taras says that it can also be the perfect place to promote equality and self-esteem. Taras says kayaking helped him get through tough times when he struggled as a closeted gay teenager in junior high.
“It’s funny because sport is also a safe spot for some people. When you’re practising with other like-minded people, what you have in common is that you’re going for a goal and you’re not judged for anything else,” he says.
For retired gymnast Kris Burley, who competed in Atlanta in 1996, Tuesday’s announcement is most important for its potential to change some of the homophobia that remains in the coaching and administrative infrastructures behind high-performance sports.
“My major issue as an LGBT athlete when I was competing was not with younger kids, but with the established sport system of coaches and administration. I like what the COC is starting to work toward in the leadership of the sport community,” he says.
Burley came out a couple of years after he retired in 1999. He says it would have been very difficult to compete as an out athlete. “Even in sports like gymnastics or figure skating, where people think it’s more open and accepted, often it isn’t on the international scene,” he says.
He recalls how gold medallist Ioannis Melissanidis became the butt of terribly homophobic jokes when he came out after the Atlanta Games in 1996.
“The hostility and persecution toward him for coming out was tremendous. I witnessed it at the World Championships and other competitions, and it was awful, how he was made fun of,” Burley says. “Particularly the Russian and Eastern Bloc countries were very hostile toward anybody who was not considered hyper-masculine. I remember that he was ostracized and completely made fun of, and I would never in my condition risk the same thing.”
That fear is particularly acute in judged sports, where athletes’ international reputations and the whims of judges can affect rankings. But Burley thinks the COC’s new program could help change the culture in sport internationally.
“Canada has a tremendous history in being leaders in sport movement. The movement in Canada for women in sport has been tremendous, and Canada has been a leader in that for many years,” he says.
Overholt is cautious to point out that the COC’s announcement is not meant as a provocation or even a call for similar action on the part of the International Olympic Committee, which has also faced criticism in the wake of the Sochi Olympics. The IOC will debate adding “sexual orientation” to its anti-discrimination charter at its next meeting, to be held Dec 8 and 9 in Monaco.
“This is not Canada calling anyone out. That’s not our intention. Our job is to look after the people we’re meant to serve. These things are premised on the notion that sport is a fundamental human right and should be accessible to all,” Overholt says. “What we do and the way we go about our business is about Canada and our business. It’s not a statement to invoke controversy.”
For two-time Olympic speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, competing in the Sochi Olympics as an out lesbian was a bittersweet experience.
“Sochi was the time of my life,” she says. “But there was a self-consciousness that made it very haunting, knowing there were people living under these laws.” She credits the COC with making her feel safe during her Olympic experience.
For You Can Play executive director Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback, this new partnership means that the next generation of athletes will grow up knowing that LGBT people can compete as equals.
“If you already make it to college or the professional ranks and you haven’t been taught about the importance of making an environment that is safe for LGBT people, it’s not too late, but it’s pretty late,” he says. “What’s so wonderful about this partnership is we will have access to young people when they are still in school, before they’re at the amateur or pro level.”
Davis, who grew up in the south and west of the United States, says he had heard athletes talk about diversity but felt it applied only to race or religion.
“Now our athletes won’t be afraid to show up and say, ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender.’ Kids will grow up knowing their lives matter,” Davis says.