LGBT issues have been at the forefront of the Olympics since the 2014 Games in Sochi put a spotlight on Russia’s institutionalized homophobia. Many athletes, concerned about their safety or about being distracted from competition, opted to stay in the closet: Of the 2,900 competitors representing 88 nations at the 2014 Games only seven were openly gay.
And none were men.
Both freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and luger John Fennell were among those who remained closeted at the Sochi Games. Now, as we approach the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February, both hope to earn spots on Team USA as out proud gay men.
For Fennell, who competed for Team Canada at Sochi, it wasn’t just Russia’s gay-propaganda ban that kept him from living openly.
“I thought I wouldn’t be accepted by my teammates,” the 22-year-old told NBC News. “I changed the way I talked to my teammates. I concealed my emotions.” Trying to compete at the elite level while inspecting yourself for any tell-tale signals of homosexuality was “really distracting,” he says. “I felt like I had to change who I was.”
Gus Kenworthy came out in a 2015 ESPN interview, more than a year after earning a silver medal at Sochi. He spoke of not even being able to acknowledge a boyfriend cheering him on from the stands.
“I never got to be proud of what I did in Sochi because I felt so horrible about what I didn’t do,” he said. “I didn’t want to come out as the silver medalist from Sochi. I wanted to come out as the best freeskier in the world.”
He admitted he believed being a skier and being a gay man “couldn’t co-exist,” on an episode MTV’s The Challenge. “But the pain of holding onto this lie and the pain of being in the closet was greater than the fear of coming out.”
They’re joined by another out American Olympian hopeful: Figure skater Adam Rippon, who’s earned a reputation for speaking his mind. The 27-year-old came out in 2015, saying he wanted to send a message “to the dad out there who might be concerned that his son is a figure skater.”
“When athletes come out and say that they’re gay, it makes it a little more normal and less of a big deal—especially in the athletic community,” he told Skating magazine. You have a lot of respect for your fellow athletes for working hard toward a goal. Their sexual orientation takes a backseat to that.”
Fennell will learn if he made the cut today, while Rippon and Kenworthy will learn their status early next month.
South Korea is relatively gay-friendly compared to Russia—in fact LGBT groups are already organizing a Pride House for the Olympic Village in Pyeongchang. But politics still seep in: Earlier this fall, Russia and Egypt threatened to refuse to sign the Olympic Charter if sexual orientation wasn’t removed from its anti-discrimination policy in Principle 6.