Every Olympic Games, summer or winter, we tally up the number of publicly out athletes and their names get posted on blogs and they get interviewed by the media about their sexual orientation. Some athletes, like gold medal diver, Matthew Mitcham and silver medal softball player, Lauren Lappin, embrace the media attention and use their high profile to call attention to LGBT issues in sport.
This story about Ireen Wust, the openly lesbian Dutch Olympic short track speed skater, provides another perspective on high profile athletes being publicly out. Ireen bristles at media questions about her sexuality and her relationship with teammate Sanne van Kerkhof.
She said in a recent interview, “I want to talk about ice skating. You are not asking Sven Kramer (Presumably heterosexual Dutch gold medalist in speed skating) about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.”
Certainly, part of the interest was because Ireen Wust’s partner is a teammate. We certainly heard lots the last two nights about the two U.S. pair figure skaters who are a couple, but both have other skating partners and how they were planning to celebrate Valentine’s Day after their competition was over.
Wust has a point about heterosexual male athletes not typically being asked media interview questions about their relationships though. However, I believe that women heterosexual athletes are asked about their relationships and plans to have children, etc. during media interviews. Olympic sand volleyball gold medalist, Misty May comes to mind. So, it is partly a sexism thing.
I also understand that not all openly lesbian or gay athletes want to be flag bearers for the LGBT movement, as much as we’d like them to. It seems that Ireen Wust falls into this category. It might also be that she is an outspoken activist in other contexts who just doesn’t want to mix her Olympic experience with her activism. I cannot even imagine the pressures and distractions that threaten an athlete’s focus on their performance that are part of any Olympic athlete’s experience, let alone a gay or lesbian Olympian’s experience. This article discusses this issue with a closeted gay male Olympian.
Plus, if I trained at that level for many years and was competing in the Olympics for my country, maybe that is what I’d want to focus on in media interviews, not my relationships. Clearly, it isn’t that Ireen Wust is closeted. She is open about being a lesbian. She just doesn’t want that to be the lead story during the Olympics. Fair enough.
The problem is that we are so hungry for LGBT role models and visibility in athletics. We know that the more openly, publicly out LGBT people there are in sport and everywhere else, the more things change for the better. We just have to remember that openly lesbian or gay athletes are not necessarily interested in being public spokespeople or interested in making their personal lives public or at least not making their personal lives the focus when they’d rather focus on their athletic accomplishments.
Until every Olympian and every pro or collegiate athlete has the privilege of talking freely about their sexual orientation and their relationships and their families without fear of financial or competitive reprisals, we will have to be grateful for the LGBT athletes who choose to be public and use their visibility as a platform for social change. We also must understand the decisions of others not to.