All in the Games: Homophobia, human rights and Sochi

Derek Van Rheenen, the head of the campus Athletic Study Center since 2001, also directs the master’s program in “Cultural Studies of Sport in Education” at Berkeley, and has written widely on issues at the intersection of sports, politics and culture.

On the eve of the winter Olympic Games — which officially kick off with Friday’s opening ceremonies — Van Rheenen met with the NewsCenter to discuss his forthcoming paper, “A Skunk at the Garden Party: The Sochi Olympics, State-Sponsored Homophobia and Prospects for Human Rights Through Mega-Sporting Events.”

Derek Van Rheenen

Derek Van Rheenen in his Athletic Study Center office, which features a painting of basketball player Maya Moore in action. (Barry Bergman/NewsCenter photo)

Q. Before becoming a teacher and scholar you were an athlete, playing soccer both as a Cal Bear and as a professional. What prompted your academic interest in the cultural and political aspects of sports?

A. At the time I played, soccer was still kind of a Rodney Dangerfield joke. As another professional soccer league [the American Professional Soccer League] was folding, I had the choice to wait around and play for Major League Soccer which wasn’t going to happen for another year or move on with my life. I was really missing the intellectual stimulation, so I came back to Cal and started a master’s program, which ultimately led to a Ph.D.

My mentor was [folklorist and Berkeley professor] Alan Dundes, who told me there was a minor genre, games, within folklore. He thought I could be a critic of institutionalized sports. And that was my intellectual epiphany — that I could actually combine what I love and my own sort of kinesthetic view of the world and athletics, and study it as a scholar.

You call your paper “A Skunk at the Garden Party.” Before we get to the metaphorical skunk which is open to some interpretation how apt is the “garden party” as a description of the Sochi Olympics?

The garden party is really referencing the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics, the bringing together of the many invitees, with their colors and entourages. There’s an assumption out there that there is, or should be, a separation between politics and sports. And someone who does the kind of work I do just thinks, well, no. [Laughs]

Sports, even youth sports, are inherently political. The Olympics are especially so.

And the skunk?

The skunk here has a double-edged meaning. I borrowed the expression “skunk at the garden party” in reference to the anti-gay legislation and the Sochi Games from Fred Sainz, the spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign. And the idea from the beginning of the paper is that that’s what the skunk is this anti-gay legislation, this so-called anti-propaganda law promulgated by Vladimir Putin and the Russian parliament. Like a skunk at a garden party, the provocation and response to this homophobic legislation could spoil the Games.

But you also note that Russia has defended itself, in part, by pointing to the hypocrisy of the United States, which hosted the Olympics in Salt Lake City at a time when homosexual activity was outlawed in much of this country.

That’s the other way to view the skunk, yes. There’s the notion that LGBT citizens have all the rights of every other citizen. But that’s not the case in many parts of the world, even in this country. And the idea that we’ve just passed [pro-gay] legislation, and are therefore entitled to be the spokespeople of the world, is presumptuous.

So on the first level, the skunk represents the anti-gay legislation. On the second level, though, the skunk a mammal which, by the way, is not indigenous to Russia can be seen as a Western import, in the same way that homosexuality could be seen as a Western import, a decadent lifestyle that we [in the West] are foisting upon these people and their Russian Orthodox  values.

The modern history of the Olympics and, more generally, what you call “mega-sporting events” is rife with debates over how global leaders should deal with violations of civil and human rights by the host country.

Governments must respond. President Obama has made a very bold statement in response to this. And I don’t think it’s all about this anti-gay legislation, but it certainly is a major part of it, in the sense that neither he nor his wife is going, he’s not sending a formal delegation, but has hand-selected a more informal delegation that is clearly comprised of high-profile LGBT athletes like Billy Jean King and Brian Boitano. Whether you support this political move or not, it’s fascinating. It’s politics prompted by debates around human rights.

Meanwhile, it’s still illegal in half the states in this country for these athletes to marry their partners.

That’s true. And that’s the irony of these political statements and how they are interpreted. We can look back to Hitler’s Games, for example, where Jesse Owens, an African American, wins four gold medals. On the surface, this looks like we have an America that represents democracy, and liberalism, and equality.

But underneath that, of course, is the reality that African Americans clearly did not have equality at this time, and the United States does not represent all that we think and hope we’re representing. The reality is much richer and deeper than the surface symbolism.

What does that tell us about the utility of athletic events as political instruments?

Sport itself can be utilized both positively and negatively around political statements and ideology. There were calls in the 1930s to boycott Hitler’s Games. The world knew what was going on at that point. Harvey Fierstein recently wrote an editorial in the New York Times saying we should never have gone. And we not only knew what was going on, but the United States in some ways was complicit we even excluded Jewish American athletes from competing at those Games in certain events.

So we’re all in some ways complicit in what’s going on in the world theater. And if we don’t make a statement at that moment in time, there is a question about our moral and ethical standing.

We went to Hitler’s Olympics. We boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980, and then the Soviet Union returned the favor in ‘84. Has a boycott been part of the Sochi discussion?

Neither the United States nor any other countries have seriously considered boycotting the Sochi Games. There have been calls to do so but the Games have not been really threatened. These calls for political protest have been exercised at other levels, though. As I note in my paper, some members of the gay community decided to boycott Stolichnaya vodka. But it turns out Stoli is not even made in Russia. It’s made in Latvia, which has broken from the Kremlin and disagrees with its political viewpoints. And Stoli has been incredibly supportive of the LGBT community.

There have also been efforts by some elected officials in California, having to do with disinvestment in Russian properties and so forth. So there are all kinds of ways people can try to make a political statement that may or may not be effective, and may or may not even target the people who should be targeted.

We’re a long way from the original model of ancient Greece, where the Games served to inspire unity, or even the so-called ping-pong diplomacy of the Nixon era, which aimed to use sports as a vehicle for bridging political and cultural differences.

Lots of sports sociologists would argue that we could do a much better job at building on camaraderie and internationalism than we do currently. For example, they say, there’s no reason why we need opening or closing ceremonies to be divided by country, by national dress. We could be combining international groups by events. So all the athletes who run the 100 meters, for example, walk out together. All the countries in the world that are competing walk out together.

We could also downplay medal counts, which become, at least in the United States, the front headline: How many golds do we have, how many silvers, who’s got the most? There are ways in which we could certainly make these much more international, much more cooperative.

Is there a chance these types of events could be steered in the direction of unity, rather than division?

From an idealistic or utopian perspective, absolutely. In a realistic sense, given the way modern sport has developed, probably not. Certainly not anytime soon. But you’re speaking to the paradox of sport: On the one hand it unites people. Where else do you find perfect strangers high-fiving one another because they’re wearing the same hat? From a sociological standpoint, it’s fascinating for its ability to bring people together, to rally around a common cause.

But in the same sense it’s scary. Sport is, or can be, divisive. Because if someone is wearing a different hat, a different color, people also punch perfect strangers in the face. So it’s troubling that something that is really not all that important culturally is all of a sudden incredibly important. But some people want to say that sports are not meaningful. Not political.

On that note, does the threat of terrorism at Sochi represent the ultimate, most extreme intrusion of politics into sports?

It’s another indication how political this kind of event really is. The threat of actual physical violence, death, to innocent people is absolutely related in some ways, I think, to the symbolic violence of this legislation which itself, by the way, threatens physical violence. In a lot of ways the threat of terrorism is also symbolic, because everybody is affected by this. That is a part of the experience. And people’s decision to go or not is influenced by the threat of violence.

But that’s also true for the symbolic violence of Russia’s anti-gay legislation. People will opt not to go because of that. So these are violent times associated with the Sochi Games, in many, many ways.

Yet despite all that, and as an athlete yourself, you don’t believe the Olympics should be simply about sports, undisturbed by external forces like politics, culture, economics and so forth.

Definitely not. Sports are inherently political and ideological, and Olympics are basically sites of political struggle. What makes Sochi unique is that, to my knowledge, there’s never been a major sporting event that has had LGBT rights as so prominent a focus of attention. Historically, we can see how issues of race, of gender, have come up. And this really mirrors the development of civil-rights and human-rights movements.

So it’s not ironic that this issue is now present at the Sochi Olympics. This could be a watershed moment for gay rights globally, or it could fall incredibly flat. But regardless of whether all this attention in any way changes the treatment of Russia’s LGBT community, the fact that this has opened up an international conversation is not only important, it is historic.