As a lesbian who loves the Olympics, I’m always on the lookout for out athletes at the games. Without the long-term rooting allegiance of the sort we develop for football, baseball, or college teams, small points of similarity help us connect with Joe Skater, Jane Snowboarder, or Sally Skeletoner as they enjoy their 15 minutes of TV glory. (Four minutes if they hail from outside the United States.) Presented with a bunch of identical-looking, bespandexed speedskaters tearing around a track, who do we cheer for? The one from our homeland? The one who went to our college? The dude who, like us, can’t stop chewing gum? Or maybe the woman who plays for our team?
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. Follow her on Twitter.
Given the focus on Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law going into the Sochi Games, interest in gay Olympians wasn’t restricted to the gay blogosphere this time around. And so when the Netherlands’ Ireen Wüst won gold in the 3,000-meter speedskating competition Sunday, several stories noted that it was the first medal for an LGBTQ athlete in Sochi. (Most outlets have the count of out Olympians at seven, and they’re all women. Gay speedskater Blake Skjellerup didn’t qualify for the New Zealand team.)
As several publications have pointed out, though, Wüst doesn’t care to discuss her sexuality. Although she came out of her own accord—in an October 2009 interview with a Dutch magazine, she casually mentioned that she had been in a relationship with a woman for several months—she later complained about journalists focusing on her private life. “I want to talk about ice skating,” Wüst said. “You are not asking [Dutch speedskater] Sven Kramer about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either.”
Wüst is correct. By coming out as queer, she made herself more interesting to a lot of people, myself included. I’m sure hard-core speedskating fans don’t need that human interest angle; they lap up interviews about—well, whatever it is the speedskating press writes about. (Though the fact that Wüst’s girlfriend was also a Dutch Olympian—short-track speedskater Sanne van Kerkhof—may have been of note even to sports purists.) But outside the skating-mad Netherlands, speedskating technique drives very few page views or TV ratings points, while the human side of the Olympics sucks us all in. By the time the games are over, I’m guessing Wüst will have been written about more than Kramer (who dates a field hockey player, by the way), no matter how many medals they go home with. (As of Sunday evening, they each have one gold.)
Of course, coming out brings more than just a ready-made LGBTQ cheering section. It also brings pressure to be a model queer—or at least to spend time doing interviews and photo shoots for the LGBTQ press—and to be an activist, especially in politically sensitive Russia. Wüst apparently has no interest in all that; she wants to focus on her sport, and needless to say, that’s her call.
Wüst and van Kerkhof are no longer together. Indeed, Wüst is now in a relationship with a man and identifies as bisexual. But even if she doesn’t care to focus on sexual politics, she’s still performing an important service to viewers all over the world. Putin’s law outlaws “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” For everyone who was watching the Sochi Games, Wüst proved beyond doubt that queers can rule the skating oval.
Update, Feb. 9, 2014: Many thanks to Gerben Segboer for providing English translations of some interesting Dutch-language interviews. In this video, Wüst reveals that it was initially a struggle to admit that she had fallen in love with a woman, since she had always pictured herself being happy with a husband and children. She initially wished away the attraction and that she could take a pill to undo her feelings. She was also afraid that people would pigeonhole her as a lesbian athlete. “Will you then be known as Ireen the speedskater or Ireen who has a girlfriend? That was a struggle,” she tells the interviewer. Later in the conversation, she notes that she’s also attracted to men and is bisexual. Meanwhile, in the Dutch daily AD, Wüst responded to a gay former politician who had said that since she could be jailed in Russia because of her sexuality, she had an obligation to make a statement supporting LGBTQ rights while in Sochi. Wüst acknowledged that things were bad for LGBT people in Russia, but she says the anti-gay law is a “political thing that should be discussed by politicians. …I’m just there to skate very fast. I can’t do anything about it, and I won’t. As if a well-known Dutch person can change the situation in Russia!” She continues, “I’m not going to make a statement, it’s not my place to do so.”
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.