There is a certain thrill in witnessing a body fly through the air, landing gracefully on skis below; watching slick vessels slice through tunnels carved from snow; hearing the hissing sound of skates cutting symmetrical patterns into ice.
But for LGBTQ people, that swell of pride has historically come with a gargantuan caveat, as queer athletes haven’t always been given a fair shake. LGBTQ Olympians have long had to hide in the closet to compete, or else been subjected to invasive and discriminatory poking and prodding, particularly if their perceived gender expression didn’t match their gender identity. Some couldn’t do it and quit. Others have been shut out.
As the Winter Olympics kick off in Beijing this week, though, there is good reason to be hopeful, to celebrate even.
For one, these Games are the first since the International Olympic Committee announced in November that it will abandon its invasive and ill-informed policy that sets hormone limits for female athletes to compete in female sports. In its new guidelines, the IOC is encouraging policies that require evidence that transgender athletes have a competitive advantage. “Every athlete has the right to practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety and dignity,” the new guidelines state.
Even more inspiring, there are an impressive number of out and proud LGBTQ athletes competing. There were a record-breaking 186 openly LGBTQ athletes in the Tokyo Summer Games, and dozens are competing in the Winter Games as well.
Spectators will get to watch openly queer athletes from 15 countries compete in nine different sports, according to the Human Rights Campaign, including 35-year-old Dutch speedskater Ireen Wüst, who identifies as bisexual and has won more Olympic medals in the sport than anyone else. We’ll get to cheer for Emily Clark, the 26-year-old Canadian hockey player who holds a silver medal from the 2018 games in South Korea, as well as 31-year-old Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancochova, who has leveraged her platform as a star athlete to advocate for marriage equality in her home country (where she married her wife in Washington state, reportedly accompanied by a bottle of bourbon and a black bear).
Other out athletes competing in the Winter 2022 Games include 27-year-old French figure skater Guillaume Cizeron, who is a four-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist. Their athletic agility is impressive in its own right, but so too is the influence their identities will have on untold millions around the world, especially for those in countries where being LGBTQ is still met with discrimination, or worse.
What’s more, the first winter Olympic athlete who identifies as nonbinary will be competing in the Winter Games: pairs figure skater Timothy LeDuc. LeDuc has given voice to what it means to have to work twice as hard and often settle for half as much, while being subjected to exponential scrutiny: “So often queer people have to adjust themselves and sacrifice authenticity to achieve success,” they said last month.
For those who have ever felt out of place, who have long been relegated to the sidelines, the increased representation of gender diversity and LGBTQ people in the Olympics is a most welcome refrain. And this is especially true for young queer people, who are finally getting to see a Games that is more inclusive than it’s ever been.
“We know that representation matters, especially for young people. It’s easier to feel secure and accepted when you see yourself reflected in the media, or in this case at the most important and publicized sports competition in the world,” said Carter Barnhart, chief executive and co-founder of the mental health program Charlie Health.
For young LGBTQ athletes in particular, Barnhart said, the increased representation “comes at a really important moment”: “We know that LGBTQIA+ kids are more likely than non-LGBTQIA+ kids to have mental health struggles; to attempt suicide or self-harm. So, any additional support they can receive — including being able to see incredible athletes who represent their community on the international stage — the better.”
Despite the gains, the queer score isn’t entirely settled. Not even close. The Games are taking place in China, a nation that some say is taking an increasingly anti-LGBTQ stance. And world-renowned athletes like South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, must contend with a long history of gender policing that hasn’t entirely been remedied. Bills also continue to sweep state legislatures in the United States that deny trans kids access to sports and, even more critically, to medical care.
Of course, anyone trying to deny that LGBTQ athletes are an important fixture of the Olympics clearly hasn’t read their history books. The original Olympics were perhaps the queerest ever.
What to know about the Beijing Olympics
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come to a close.
The United States finished fifth in the final medal standings at the Beijing Olympics, with eight gold, 10 silver and seven bronze. Here’s a look back at the Team USA athletes who reached the podium.
Watch Washington Post reporters recall notable moments from the 2022 Winter Games and what it was like to cover the Olympics from a pandemic bubble in Beijing.
In unusually strong words from the face of NBC’s Olympics coverage, Mike Tirico criticized the Olympic movement and the Russian Olympic Committee for the gruesome skating fiasco that marred the Games.
“Olympic governance is not apolitical. It is recklessly illogical. It is not protecting athletes and competitive integrity in adherence to the convoluted standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency.” Read Jerry Brewer.
Take this survey and tell us your thoughts on The Post’s coverage of the Beijing Olympics and international sports.