Swiss sports bodies have taken up the challenge of combatting sexual discrimination in sport. swissinfo.ch looks at a new campaign and hears the views of two openly gay Swiss athletes, one of whom was medal-hunting in Sochi this weekend.
“As an athlete but also as a human being, I think we need to stop any kind of discrimination in order to unleash our full potential,” Simona Meiler told swissinfo.ch ahead of the games.
Meiler is one of Switzerland’s best snowboarders and finished 10th in her event on Sunday. She is also the only openly gay Swiss athlete at the Winter Olympics and the only Swiss name on a petition (see link below) calling on the IOC and sponsors to put more pressure on Russia to reconsider recently introduced anti-gay laws.
IOC president Thomas Bach responded in his speech during the opening ceremonies, calling for “tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason”.
Ten days before the Sochi games opened, Swiss sports bodies launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue in Switzerland with the goal of stamping out discrimination in sport based on sexual orientation.
“Homophobia unfortunately takes place every day,” Sami Kanaan told swissinfo.ch. Kanaan is the president of the Association of Swiss Sports Offices behind the poster campaign, which is supported by Swiss Olympic.
“Sport is supposed to be about inclusion, tolerance, respect and fair play, so many people who do sport say homophobia is not an issue. It’s important to show that it is an issue, that people are being discriminated against and that people who are gay do not dare say it.”
Pressure on sponsors
Companies including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Switzerland’s Omega pay around $100 million (CHF90 million) each for rights to sponsor the Olympics over a four-year period and want to tap into a feel-good atmosphere during the Games.
These companies are also facing pressure to speak out over the controversial “gay propaganda” law.
The international outcry over the legislation, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin last year, threatens to undermine his hopes of using the Winter Games – which run from February 7-23 – to portray Russia as a modern state that has come a long way since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Putin says the legislation, which bans the discussion of homosexuality among minors, is needed to protect young people. Critics say it fosters a climate of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.
“These brands have spent millions to align themselves with the Olympics, but have repeatedly refused to support the founding principles of the Games,” Andre Banks, one of the founders of gay rights group All Out, said earlier in February.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned sexual discrimination and attacks on homosexuals in a speech to the International Olympic Committee in Sochi on February 6 which also drew attention to Russia’s record on gay rights.
Deputy Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said shortly afterwards in Sochi that there would be no discrimination at the Games. “We’re all grown-ups and every adult has the right to understand their sexuality,” Kozak said. But, echoing a remark by Putin, he added: “Please do not touch kids.”
Laurent Paccaud, 25, practises judo at a national level. He came out about five years ago and says most reactions were positive.
“People within the sporting community were surprised, astonished – it was completely new for them,” he told swissinfo.ch at the launch of the campaign.
“A lot of people knew absolutely nothing about [homosexuality] and asked a lot of questions – they were interested and wanted to learn more. But some people were rejecting.”
Paccaud did a Masters in social sciences and wrote his 300-page dissertation on homophobia in sport.
“For men, homophobia is expressed more violently in a sporting context than other social contexts, because of a different focus on the body. There is inevitably a virile social aspect: after training, people talk about chatting up girls and so on. Gays have to play a constant game and lie to the people around them.”
This, he says, is because of society’s image of gays as less manly and far from the model of a good athlete.
Lack of role models
Barbara Lanthemann, head of the Swiss Lesbian Organisation, says the Swiss campaign is a step in the right direction, but she thinks using the faces of well-known openly gay Swiss athletes would have been more effective. The problem, however, is that there aren’t any.
“They know they can lose sponsors and their career could be over. They know that once they come out, they will always be described as gay or lesbian.”
But for 24-year-old Meiler, this is not an important consideration. “I don’t think it’s generally a big issue in sports such as skiing and snowboarding. Sexuality in general is not an issue. What we’re rated for are our results on snow," she said.
“We – at least the snowboarders – don’t get that much media attention and therefore our private lives aren’t of much interest. Winter sports usually […] don’t have a strict image of a model athlete.”
Paccaud says it’s difficult to give advice because each situation is specific to the individual. “But I would advise people to think hard about coming out. Don’t do it overnight but really think about it, because there are consequences. Many are positive but there could also be negative consequences.”
“The most common reaction I got was ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother me!’. Those words might appear positive, but they imply that I’m abnormal. People want to be nice and reassure me – it’s a message with good intentions but which is hurtful without realising it.”
The new campaign features rainbow-coloured sports items – a football, ice hockey mask, medal podium and so on – above slogans such as “Penalty against homophobia” or “No room on the podium for gender discrimination”.
Lanthemann points to the discrimination and suffering of people who are actually straight but are thought to be gay and bullied as a result.
“Ten years ago a lot of women started playing football. When you play football it’s logical to have short hair because it’s easier to wash every day – so ten years ago most women who played football had short hair. Then people started saying that if a woman plays football she must be a lesbian!” she said.
“So if you now look at women footballers today, they’ve all got long hair! Their image is very feminine so people can’t question their sexuality. I think that’s homophobia, because it shows pressure from society. One player in the US recently came out and she said ‘I can finally cut my hair!’”
‘Courage and self-confidence’
“Coming out is still a big taboo in sport,” said Mehdi Künzle from the Swiss gay organisation Pink Cross.
He welcomed the latest campaign, but pointed out that it had been the only effort by Swiss sports clubs to make homophobia an issue: people only started talking about it after retired German footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger came out on January 8 and when critical newspaper headlines started appearing in the run-up to Sochi.
According to Künzle, the more public interest in a sport, the harder it is for an athlete to come out.
“Schwingen [Swiss wrestling] is without doubt the hardest sport to come out in,” he reckoned. “A wrestler would have to admit his homosexuality to the most conservative part of the country.”
Künzle encourages athletes to come out – if possible during their active career, when such an admission would have much more of an effect.
“That obviously requires a lot of courage and self-confidence,” he said. “But the best way to change discrimination of homosexuals is the action of brave individuals.”
What’s more, Meiler believes that athletes who want to win have to be “completely confident and happy with themselves”.
“They have to be ready to give everything and perform wholeheartedly, and in my eyes that’s only possible if they can accept and express their sexuality. That doesn’t mean they have to blare out that they are gay. But it definitely helps if an athlete’s closer environment is supportive and encouraging.”