Today was such a day.
It was an all-too-rare occasion which affords us the chance to treasure the values that sport is supposed to represent.
In that part of Toronto known simply as “The Village,” a group of LGBTQ athletes and their allies gathered to assert their right to be Olympians regardless of their sexual orientation.
The Canadian Olympic Committee gave them the platform and they made the most of the opportunity.
Straight, gay and lesbian Olympians took to a common stage and together pledged to become crusaders for the most basic of sporting principles. Simply put, everyone, if they have the ability, should have the opportunity to compete in a safe environment free from discrimination.
This is a seemingly endless struggle on many fronts when it comes to the Olympics. There is not yet gender equity at the Games and whether or not racial and religious barriers have been alleviated is very much up for debate.
Still, the sour aftertaste from Sochi lingers because of the oppressive atmosphere in which LGBTQ athletes were expected to give their best while remaining silent and above all obedient in the face of a regime bent on persecuting them.
And so, while it is on one level a symbolic act, the COC’s initiative to write into its bylaws and advocate a language change to the Olympic Charter which would guarantee LGBTQ athletes freedom from discrimination, is an enlightened advancement.
More significant is the aggressive partnership which the COC has forged with the You Can Play Project, an organization advocating LGBTQ equality in sport, and Egale Canada, a national charity which promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights through research education and community engagement to promote equity in amateur and high-performance athletic endeavours.
The athletes themselves, the so-called “One Team Ambassadors,” will attempt to educate children with the help of resources provided by the Canadian Olympic School Program. The subject matter will be tolerance in sport and the message is simple…everyone has the right to dream of being an Olympian without fear of reprisal.
“Athletes should be judged by their performance on the field of play and their character as people, not for who they love,” said Chris Overholt, the CEO/Secretary General of the COC.
“It’s about time,” said a beaming Mark Tewksbury.
Tewksbury won swimming gold at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and after coming out in 1998, went on to lead Team Canada as the Chef de Mission at London 2012.
“The IOC following suit is a much tougher proposition,” Tewksbury warned. “Seventy six of the countries who have votes on the IOC actively persecute homosexuals. At least it’s going to a vote but it will take some time.”
Agenda 2020 document
Tewksbury is referring to the Agenda 2020 document being put forward in the coming days by IOC president Thomas Bach. In it he proposes a change to the language of the Olympic Charter. It applies to the 6th principle of Olympism which currently guarantees athletes the right to compete regardless of gender, race or religion. Bach would add sexual orientation into the mix. A large block of countries is expected to oppose this alteration.
There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel, or so it would seem. Canada is taking the lead when it comes to education within the Olympic movement and re-establishing a much needed connection to the guiding principles of the Games themselves.
“All sports for all people,” was said to be one of the mottos of Pierre de Coubertin who helped found the modern Olympics in 1896. It is unlikely that de Coubertin envisioned a time when that notion included LGBTQ competitors.
Nevertheless, an evolving cultural reality has made it imperative for the Games to live up to their lofty ideals.
“At the end of the day we are all Olympians,” said One Team Ambassador and self described LGBTQ ally Hank Palmer, who ran track for Canada at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It doesn’t matter who we are or what race we come from or what sexual orientation we have. We are Olympians and we all share the same dream of success.”
That understanding by the Canadian Olympic Committee is a genuine article of faith and thus a huge step in the right direction for sport.