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If Tom Daley Were Russian, We Would Never Have Heard of Him…

The Olympic Games is never short of controversy. In fact, the world’s largest sporting event has so much of the stuff that there is even a dedicated Wikipedia page to record it all. The Tokyo 2021 Olympics has not bucked this trend.

This year, we have seen painful defeat for German pentathlete Annika Schleu when her horse refused to jump in the show jumping. Later, her coach, Kim Raisner was disqualified for hitting a horse and insisting that her rider should do similarly.

We have even seen political problems make their way to the Olympics, as Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was forced to defect to Poland. Her decision to seek asylum came after she openly criticised the Belarusian Olympic coaches for entering her into a race which she did not usually run. The team, who entered Tsimanouskaya after other athletes missed their doping tests, attempted to remove Tsimanouskaya from Japan without her consent.

Business as usual at the Olympics then! These newsworthy incidents shed light on some of the problems which surround the Olympics and the nations competing at the games. Unfortunately, some of the darkest problems in the world still stretch the resilience of the International Olympic Committee to breaking point.

One such problem was posed to me by my girlfriend’s father as we concluded our breakfast this morning. That problem was: if Tom Daley were Russian, we would probably never have heard of him.

Recent coverage of the Olympics by a Russian state-run broadcaster described LGBTQ Olympians as “dirt,” “perverts,” and “psychopaths”. Specific scorn was reserved for Tom Daley and his husband who were referenced by the Russia-1 broadcaster Olga Skabeyeva directly. In response to the homophobic comments, Daley said:

“History shows that everything that society is has been dictated from the straight, white, male experience. If we could come together and use different points of view, the world would be a better place.”

Olympic officials are investigating the comments made about Daley as well as transgender athletes competing at the games, but could this be an unwinnable battle for the IOC? Russian attitudes towards the LGBT+ community are notoriously backward facing, with Human Rights Watch noting that LGBT+ youth face “formidable barriers to enjoying their fundamental rights” in Russia. While the IOC has significant power within the realm of the Olympic Games (and perhaps outside it too) this power may not be strong enough to cross the border into Russia.

Backwards facing attitudes are not isolated to Russia however, as countries like Saudi Arabia continue to impose laws which ignore fundamental human rights. Sharia law principles in Saudi Arabia mean that same-sex marriage and intimacy are punishable by death, while strict dress codes impact the gender expression of transgender people.

Similarly, in Nigeria, just talking about LGBT rights is a criminal act. The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013 means that being gay could land you 14 years in prison or a death penalty. Other countries, like Qatar, are more lenient with their homophobia, and offer a larger range of punishments such as 3 years in prison, flogging, and of course the death penalty. LGBT+ travellers should not be disparaged though, as Sweden, Canada, Norway, Portugal, and Belgium rank as the safest countries in the world for the LGBT+ community.

While there are undoubtedly places around the world where attitudes towards the LGBT+ community are still welcoming, a sizeable portion of the world still has an illogical tendency towards homophobia, transphobia, and general ignorance. The IOC, although dutiful in its response to bigoted foreign media coverage, will ultimately make little difference to the widespread and in some cases religiously motivated attitudes towards LGBT+ individuals.

Policing the world is an impossible task for any organisation, particularly when the topic under debate is mindset. A great many problems persist around the globe because people fail to think and subsequently act appropriately. Climate Action, Black Lives Matter, Pride, the me-too movement, pro-choice movements. Each and every one of these social movements has formed because the world is thinking the wrong way about certain aspects of life.

It would be great to live in a world where we stop climate change, have racial equality, have equal rights for LGBT+ people, stop sexual abuse, and let women choose what to do with their own bodies. Regrettably, the world has yet to achieve just one of these goals universally.

The Olympics is an institution, an event, and a spectacle. It truly does show what is possible when the world comes together. Or at least it used to. Now, as the International Olympic Committee plays the part of headteacher, vainly attempting to keep the students in proper order, the spirit of togetherness which the rings embody is questionable. The headteacher is stressed, the students are not behaving on sports day, and the world has even more evidence that much is yet to be done to find a perfect world.

Written by Isaac Knowles


Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: Robert Nunn | Flickr.com