When Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics, there will likely be a record number of out LGBTQ athletes competing in the Games. Not only that, it could also prove to be the most political Olympics in recent history.
The number of open LGBTQ athletes appearing in the Olympics has increased steadily in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue. According to Outsports, there could be over 100 LGBTQ athletes competing in 2020, up from 56 in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil and 15 in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The 2020 Games could also be the first time we see a transgender athlete compete, with New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard the most likely to make that history. Brazilian volleyball player Tiffany Abreu is a longshot who could also appear, in spite of not making the team’s most recent selection, which set the roster for a number of important international competitions, including an Olympic qualifying tournament.
Megan Rapinoe (above), the World Cup golden ball and golden boot winner, is one athlete who is almost certain to compete. She could play a key role in the Games being more inherently political than the International Olympic Committee might prefer. Her feud with President Donald Trump, which began when she declared she would not visit the White House if invited to celebrate the World Cup victory, brought her to even broader national and international attention.
It is possible she could fill the role figure skater Adam Rippon took on during the Winter Olympics, in which he criticized the choice to allow Vice President Mike Pence to lead the U.S. delegation. Rippon also stated he would not attend the White House, as part of the customary U.S. Olympic Team visit.
In addition to Rapinoe, there are other U.S. athletes who are willing to speak out despite attempts at silencing them. Last month, fencer Race Imboden (below) and hammer thrower Gwen Berry made political gestures during their medal ceremonies at the Pan Am Games.
Imoden knelt while he and his teammates were being honored for winning gold in the team fencing competition.
“I am honored to represent Team USA at the Pan Am Games,” said Imoden. “My pride however has been cut short by the multiple shortcomings of the country I hold so dear to my heart. Racism, Gun Control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list.”
“I chose to sacrifice my moment today at the top of the podium to call attention to issues that I believe need to be addressed. I encourage others to please use your platforms for empowerment and change.”
Berry raised a fist towards the end of the U.S. national anthem, in a move reminiscent of the protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their glove-clad fists in the air as the song played.
— Nick Zaccardi (@nzaccardi) August 11, 2019
“Somebody has to talk about the things that are too uncomfortable to talk about. Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” Berry told USA Today.
“If nothing is said, nothing will be done, and nothing will be fixed, and nothing will be changed.”
Both Berry and Imoden were given 12 months of probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for their acts of protest. Athletes are made to sign contracts saying they won’t engage in any form of protest at the Games.
“It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient,” said Sarah Hirshland, who serves as the chief executive officer of the United States Olympic Committee.
“We recognize that we must more clearly define for Team USA athletes what a breach of these rules will mean in the future. Working with the [athletes and governing bodies], we are committed to more explicitly defining what the consequences will be for members of Team USA who protest at future Games,” Hirshland added.
The timing of the Olympics could mean a number of athletes choose to make the sacrifice and face possible punishment to speak out, as they will take place just a few months before the 2020 presidential election.
As all facets of life become increasingly political, not to mention polarized, officials hoping to keep a clamp over the mouths of athletes might have to accept they don’t have as much control over them as they’d like.