Last year’s Tokyo Olympics are destined to be remembered for many reasons. They took place amid a state of emergency in the Japanese capital – declared as the city was dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases – and events were staged with little to no spectators to cheer athletes on.
But the Games made history for another reason, too. They featured more out LGBTQ+ participants than any known previous Olympics.
Of the 11,000 Olympians competing in Tokyo, at least 186 identified as LGBTQ, according to the SB Nation blog Outsports – a groundbreaking moment in the history of the representation of marginalized sexualities and gender identities in the sporting world.
Outsports reports that the Beijing Games will have a record number of out athletes for the Winter Games at 35 – yet, it looks like those Olympians may be performing in the shadow of growing challenges faced by sexual minorities and their supporters in China.
Although the nation removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders in 2001, the LGBTQ community in China continues to face official harassment and same-sex marriage remains illegal across the country.
In recent years, the Chinese government has accelerated its pressure on LGBTQ+ rights and spaces. In 2017, Chinese authorities banned online video platforms from sharing content that contained the depiction of “abnormal sexual behaviors” – which, according to those authorities, included same-sex relationships.
In July 2021, WeChat – a popular messaging app in the country – shut down more than a dozen of LGBTQ+ accounts run by university students and sparked widespread concern over the censorship of gender and sexual minorities. The year before, Shanghai Pride – China’s longest-running Pride event usually attended by thousands of LGBTQ+ people from across the nation – abruptly canceled all their scheduled activities due to mounting pressure from local authorities, according to a source with knowledge of the situation that spoke to CNN at the time.
The organizers posted an open letter online titled “The End of the Rainbow” and said they would also be taking a break from scheduling all future events. They gave no reason for the Pride cancellation in the letter but a person not associated with Shanghai Pride – but with knowledge of the situation – told CNN at the time that the all-volunteer team had been facing mounting pressure from local authorities, to the point of where it was disrupting their day jobs and normal lives.
CNN spoke to one LGBTQ+ community leader in Beijing about the climate on this topic right now. CNN agreed to refer to him only as “AJ” due to the sensitivity of the topic and his fear of negative repercussions. AJ said that it is “becoming more and more challenging for Chinese LGBTQ+ non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to run projects.”
He added that many LGBTQ+ organizations are “on the brink of closing as funds run dry” in an increasingly censored environment.
He also said that the capital’s local LGBTQ+ community will be sad not to be able to watch in person as see Olympians compete in the Beijing Games in person due to the current Covid-19 restrictions in place in the city – “especially out LGBTQ+ athletes.”
On January 17, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced tickets for the Games would not go on sale for international visitors or the general public, citing Covid-19 concerns. Instead, it decided groups of spectators would need to be invited to fill the stands – Olympic venues will be split between spectators from inside Beijing’s “closed loop” system and those outside of it, according to Vice President of the Beijing Organizing Committee, Yang Shu’an.
Those outside of the “closed loop” – which is made up of Games-related personnel – will include international people residing in mainland China, diplomatic personnel, marketing partners, winter sports enthusiasts, residents and local students.
In China’s sporting world, athletes who openly identify as LGBTQ+ as part of their public image are few and far between.
In June 2021, Li Ying – a prominent footballer for the Chinese women’s national team – posted photos of herself and her girlfriend to mark their anniversary on the social media platform Weibo. Chinese media commentators noted it as a turning point for LGBTQ athletes in public life. But Li’s account was flooded with homophobic abuse after going viral and the post was later deleted without explanation.
As the attention of the international sporting community turns to Beijing while the Winter Olympics unfold, the censorship placed on the city’s LGBTQ+ population citizens and the glaring lack of out LGBTQ+ athletes representing China is thrust under a global spotlight.
According to former pro snowboarder Simona Meiler, clampdowns on LGBTQ+ liberties and censorship such as those that exist in China are contrary to the core principles of the Olympic Charter.
“The Charter is supposed to uphold the rights of all and to discourage discrimination,” Meiler – who identifies as gay – told CNN Sport. “But when the host nations of the Games violate human rights – whether in their treatment of LGBTQ+ people or other minorities – that goes against everything that the Charter stands for.”
Indeed, the Charter states that the philosophy of Olympism “seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
Further, the Charter’s rules also make it explicitly clear that the “enjoyment of the rights and freedoms” in the Olympic Movement shall “be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion,” among other characteristics.
Yet Meiler thinks the measures taken by the Chinese authorities to censor LGBTQ+ voices in the country could undermine the values of Olympism laid out by the IOC.
In hosting the Games in a nation that fosters an unwelcoming environment for LGBTQ+ people, the Olympic Charter’s “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles” is called into question, Meiler suggests.
“IOC may have rules in place designed to protect the rights of marginalized people, such as the Charter,” Meiler said. “But I rarely see the IOC actually enforce its own rules.”
In a statement to CNN Sport, the IOC said that its remit “is to ensure that there is no discrimination at the Olympic Games and that all athletes can compete and live together under one roof in the Olympic Village whatever their backgrounds or beliefs are and free from fear and any form of discrimination.”
The IOC also told CNN Sport that “by carrying out this vital mission, the Olympic Games showcase how the world could be if the world would be free from any prejudice.”
“At the same time, the IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country,” the statement said. “This must rightfully remain the legitimate role of governments and respective intergovernmental organizations.”
China, meanwhile, has repeatedly condemned actions they characterize as attempts to politicize sports.
Just last week, 243 human rights groups and non-governmental organizations called for action against China’s “atrocity crimes and other grave human rights violations,” urging governments to join a diplomatic boycott of the Games and for athletes and sponsors “not to legitimize government abuses.”
Australia, the UK, and Canada are among nations that joined a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games. India also announced a last minute diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics on February 3.
CNN has reached out to the Chinese Foreign Ministry about the concerns of LGBTQ+ citizens in the country and LGBTQ+ athletes but has not yet received a response.
But after several countries, including the United States, announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games in response to alleged genocide in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region – allegations China denies – China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “no one would care whether they come or not,” adding, “the Winter Olympic Games is not a stage for political posturing.”
Meiler herself has first-hand experience of attending a Winter Olympics held in a country that makes it difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to live in peace and without fear of censorship or violence.
She attended the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia – a nation Human Rights Watch accused at the time of failing to protect LGBTQ+ people, to have “effectively legalized discrimination” against them, and to have “cast them as second-class citizens.”
At the time, President Vladimir Putin said Russia’s priority was “a healthy traditional family and a healthy nation.”
When speaking about Sochi and the upcoming Beijing Games, Meiler points out that the honor of hosting the Olympics or other prestigious sporting events allows nations to deflect from serious questions about accusations of alleged wrongdoing. She notes that being awarded the right to hold the Olympic Games can provide positive PR for countries that may otherwise be negatively perceived because of the allegations they’re facing.
“These nations – accused of human rights abuses – want to present the best possible image they can to the rest of the world,” Meiler said. “So, when they bid to host the Olympics and other competitions and when they then get to hold them, they make sure that they put forward an upstanding version of themselves.”
Protest and pride
Meiler pointed to the recent case of the Qatar Grand Prix in November as she considered what athletes themselves can do to show support to marginalized communities when nations accused of serious human rights violations are chosen to host global sporting events.
“When it comes to the question of what athletes can do as they compete in tournaments held in nations that are hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, for example, I think others could look to the Lewis Hamilton approach,” she told CNN Sport.
Meiler is referring to celebrated driver and 7 time world champion Hamilton’s decision to wear a helmet that featured the Pride Progress flag – a more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag associated with LGBTQ+ Pride – and included the words “We Stand Together” during a practice race at the Qatar Grand Prix.
“With the platform that athletes have, on a stage as big as the Winter Games, they have a real opportunity to raise awareness of the issues affecting the place they’re competing in and beyond,” Meiler said. “For me, personally, it was never an option for me to not be out – I knew that even if I reached one or two LGBTQ+ people by being an out and open athlete, it was important.”
Whether or not athletes choose to take the Hamilton approach in Beijing is yet to be seen. But what has apparently been made clear is that any competitor making a protest at the Games, for any reason, may face condemnation for doing so.
At a press briefing on January 19, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson was asked for comment on the reports that a member of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee had warned that “foreign athletes may face punishment for any speech that violates Chinese law” during the Winter Games.
Zhao Lijian – the spokesperson – said: “As I understand, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has published a statement on the ban on political protests, which asks Olympic athletes not to protest at any Olympic venues or podiums by taking a knee or in other forms. We hope certain media would not take things out of context and maliciously hype them up to attack and discredit China.”
Yet, Zhao also added that he wanted to “reiterate that China welcomes all athletes to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, and will ensure the safety and convenience of all Olympians.”
If Olympians are indeed prevented from demonstrating against policies that make life harder for LGBTQ+ people in China, there are other ways to highlight such issues, Meiler suggests.
“The best thing that I could do with my platform is to be myself and to have another woman waiting for me at the finish line,” Meiler said. “Just showing that we exist, at competitions all over the world, is a big part of the fight for LGBTQ+ recognition.”
Upholding the Olympic values
In 2014, Eric Radford – a Canadian pair ice skater – came out at the height of his career.
Earlier that same year, the Winter Games were held in Sochi as Russia continued to crack down on LGBTQ+ rights following the introduction of legislation that outlawed the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors” and effectively banned children and young people from learning about LGBTQ+ lives and relationships.
Russia’s Justice Ministry denied that the law was discriminatory, according to state media reporting at the time.
Radford – who competed in those Olympics – told CNN Sport that when the IOC is deciding on where to host the Winter Games, “a nation’s attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights should absolutely be taken into consideration.”
He acknowledged the complicated nature of choosing where such a major event in the global sporting calendar should be held, but maintained that a nation’s stance on human rights, including LGBTQ+ freedoms, should always be of the utmost importance when searching for a new host.
“Perhaps one way to avoid holding the Olympic Games in a place that is hostile towards LGBTQ+ people and marginalized communities would be to decide on a select group of cities in countries that have been fully vetted for their record on human rights and their treatment of LGBTQ+ citizens and rotate between them every four years,” Radford said.
The decorated skater – echoing Meiler – also insisted that the IOC is responsible for ensuring that its words on encouraging tolerance and stamping out inequality are put into effective action, particularly at the Beijing Games.
“It’s the IOC’s job to uphold what the Olympics represent – such as the value of inclusion and the idea that Olympism is open to all,” Radford said. “I think what the IOC really needs to do is be vocal in its support of LGBTQ+ athletes and the wider community.”
He added: “It’s one thing [for the IOC] to say that it doesn’t accept discrimination, but it has to do more than that. It has to go further. For example, the IOC could share the stories of LGBTQ+ athletes across its social media to try and reach people in places where there isn’t much exposure to LGBTQ+ lives.”
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, skier Gus Kenworthy’s kiss with his then-boyfriend Matthew Wilkas served as a historic moment in LGBTQ+ visibility in sports while figure skater Adam Rippon used the Olympic platform to criticize former US Vice President Mike Pence’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights.
With this year’s Games now underway, the world will soon find out if the Beijing Winter Olympics do have a chilling effect on LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms in global sports.