Let the Games Begin

A few worthwhile links on the eve of the Opening Ceremonies for the XXIInd Winter Olympics. Corruption, repression and Russia’s sickening assault on LGBT folks and their allies have all been prominent storylines as the games approach.

The Nation Magazine has a special issue devoted to these and other developments. Dave Zirin’s piece discusses the anti-gay propaganda laws and efforts by activists to combat those. Zirin highlights the case of Brian Burke, a long-time NHL executive and director of player personnel for the US Olympic team. Burke’s son, Brendan, was gay and died at the age of 21 in a car accident. Burke has become an outspoken LGBT advocate and is urging Olympic participants to speak up in support of gay rights:

Burke and his other son, Patrick, started the You Can Play Project, aimed at making sports a safe space for LGBT athletes. Burke wrote in Sports Illustrated in September that “Russia has criminalized my ability to be a father and our ability to be a family.”  He went on to say, “You don’t have to be gay to care about this. You don’t have to have a gay son or daughter to recognize an organized effort by a government to target and destroy a minority group. History has taught us that, left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness…. So, Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, ‘I am pro-gay.’ When you gather your winter clothes, know that You Can Play will happily outfit any Olympic athlete with complementary You Can Play merchandise. The pressure to do what’s right shouldn’t end with the closing ceremony. The IOC, USOC and each sport’s governing bodies should refuse to stage future international competitions in Russia until these outrageous laws are repealed. That is the boycott I’m calling for.”

In the same issue, British journalist and Olympics gadfly Andrew Jennings catalogs the corruption of the IOC, including the seemingly endemic problem of sweet-heart deals and insiderism that have characterized Olympic bids and implicated a large proportion of its executive leadership. There has been and will continue to be endless talk about the unprecedented corruption of the Sochi games. And it does appear that the scale of the corruption in Sochi is epic. But it’s worth remembering that corruption has been a persistent problem in major global sporting events. The 2010 Vancouver games are now remembered as a model of probity, especially in comparison with Sochi. But those Olympics were also beset by corrupt contracts, broken promises, unjust treatment of poorly off city residents and other problems.  London 2012 faced similar criticisms.

Finally, Samantha Retrosi, who competed for the United States in singles luge at the 2006 games in Turin has a biting account of what it meant to be groomed for Olympic competition from childhood and about the nexus between corporate sponsorship and the larger ideals the Olympics are supposed to represent:

The socialization of my allegiance to Verizon began the moment I was selected—as an 11-year-old—for the US development team. The culture within the US Luge Association viewed brand loyalty as integral to the survival of the organization. All of my clothing was plastered with the Verizon logo. I was not allowed near any camera without giving a visual and verbal statement of thanks to Verizon for making all of my dreams come true. I went through intensive media training each year to reinforce this allegiance—to learn how to be a better spokesperson for Verizon. During my Olympic year, I signed away my rights to use media time for just about anything other than gratitude to sponsors. It was a condition for entrance into the Olympic Village.

It does seem to be getting more and more challenging to find a sporting event one can root for without feeling compromised in some way…


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