In a polished room at Barnard College in New York City Monday night, a mini political drama over the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics took place. In the space of a few hours, Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir defended his anti-boycott stance on the 2014 Games, called certain LGBT activists “idiots,” and later apologized for misspeaking when confronted by those same activists.
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Taking the podium in a bright pink sweater and black button-front shirt complete with matching pink collar and buttons—much more subdued attire than his popular on-ice outfits—the 29-year-old international champion talked about his love of Russian athletics and culture growing up as a poor kid from Pennsylvania, obsessed with a unique sport at which Russians excel.
Weir on the latest gay Olympian
Of U.K. Olympic diver and international heartthrob Tom Daley, who just came out as bisexual yesterday, Weir said, "How great, he's 19 years old and he feels empowered and emboldened." Weir himself came out after the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Weir retired this October after a particularly bad fall during training in August. He said he thought to himself at the time, “You’re a tired old bitch, you’re done.” NBC has hired him as a sports commentator for the Sochi Games.
Also around the time he fell is when he started hearing more about this “new crazy law in front of Russia…a no-anal-sex-in-front-of-children’s-libraries situation.” (Putin signed the bill into law in July 2013.) Later he seemed to understand that it was less about public indecency and more about a restriction of free speech and expression, given that under the vague terms of the anti-propaganda law, he could be arrested as soon as he lands in Russia. I pointed this out to him in the Q&A session—that it’s not about anal sex in front of children’s libraries, but about reporters and tourists being arrested for simply talking to minors about homosexuality.
“I apologize, I misspeak, if I’ve offended anyone in this room, sometimes I make bad comparisons, so thanks for pointing that out,” he told me.
As for being fined or arrested in Russia just because of who he is, he did give a nod to his own personal expression. “I am as gay as they come,” he said with a smile. “I am Elton John’s fanny pack.”
The more important part is that Weir seemed to waver on the severity of the situation for gays in Russia. He acknowledged his own cosseted situation.
Weir on Protesting
"I'm not a rainbow-flag waver," Weir said. "I won't go to Russia and protest because that's not me. I fully support people that can." Later he said it's not in him "to be a gay avenger." But wouldn't it make a really cool costume?
Weir's husband said that he is participating "in a passive form of activism" by living a normal life and tweeting Instagrams of their normal, happy gay life together. "Being in Russia is how I'm going to show my solidarity," Weir said.
“I never had a bad experience in Russia. I’ve never had someone call me a fag, or queer, or try to beat me up,” he said. “I’m very lucky that I’ve only seen the rosy side. I’ve only seen the golden side of Russian reality. I choose to see Russia in a very arrogant and selfish way, and only see the beautiful side of it.”
Well, at least he’s aware.
The real tension came when he referenced “idiots like the four outside,” referring to the half-dozen activists from organizations Queer Nation and RUSA LGBT who were protesting the event. They held up a banner in front of the school gates that read, “Weir: Russian Olympic Clown; N.B.C.: Naive Bloody Collaborators.”
“I support the athletes that are going to Sochi. I support the Olympics,” he said. “If I had to watch the U.S. cave to idiots dumping vodka on the street…there are athletes who have given up years of their lives and thousands of dollars [to attend the games]. The minute I even heard the word boycott, I was almost anti-American in response to having to be so anti-Russian.”
Weir on Olympic Politics
Weir said he was put on the 2010 U.S. team to the Vancouver Olympics just because he had his own TV show at the time, and that it was "hard to hear I was just a sideshow." I was "told I wasn't politically liked by my own people," he said, referring to the U.S. delegation, and said he's been "constantly criticized by America for loving Russians too much."
“They’re not that different to any other country that’s hosted the Olympics,” Weir said of Russia. “There isn’t one country that hasn’t made mistakes.”
Of Vladimir Putin himself, both Weir and his husband, Victor Weir-Voronov, also present at the panel, acknowledged the stubbornness and macho-ness of the bare-chested, horseback-riding forever-President.
Weir on Putin
Weir: "Putin is a very classic-seeming Russian man. If you tell him to do something, he'll do it just to prove he can."
Victor Weir-Voronov, Weir's husband: "[Putin will] do it 10 times harder, backwards, so let him have his little prize in Sochi, but do it in a very calculated way." His calculated way is to start lobbying for "economically powerful American companies" that have high stakes in the country to take the LGBT side.
“Just to piss Putin off isn’t enough reason for me not to send a team,” Weir said. “I firmly believe that our presence is helpful, whether that’s naive or not.”
“The more pressure you put on the government, the worse it will be for [the LGBT] community after we leave,” Weir acknowledged. “I get to go home [after the Olympics]…our presence in Sochi is needed.”
It might not be as eloquent an anti-boycott argument as Olympic swimmer Greg Louganis has made in the pages of The New York Times, but it’s the same sentiment. Openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who may be able to attend the Sochi Games as an alternate for his native New Zealand, has previously said that he would proudly wear a rainbow flag pin in Russia even though the International Olympic Committee discourages any political activism from athletes.
Weir said he’s been “constantly criticized by America for loving Russians too much.” Weir has previously been criticized by LGBT advocates for sporting a Russian military uniform on ESPN2 and telling athletes going to Russia just not to be “aggressively” gay.
A Columbia student asked Weir if there might be a raised-fist moment for LGBT people in Russia, like at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists, wrapped in black gloves, in deference to the civil rights movement in America.
“I as a gay man hope there’s a beautiful iconic moment, but I don’t think it will happen in Sochi,” Weir said.
The iconic moment of Weir’s talk came when longtime activist and reporter Andy Humm called out Weir for his “idiots” comment and demanded the figure skater apologize.
“You insulted them,” Humm told Weir, pointing out that the activists outside “have 100-plus years of experience…they won your right to get married.”
“When I feel attacked, I have the right and ability to say something,” Weir responded, and then apologized.
Humm wasn’t the only one who took issue with Weir’s description of LGBT activists. After the event finished, Terry Roethlin, program coordinator at The American Assembly of Columbia University and Tanya Domi, Get EQUAL director and Columbia adjunct professor, asked Weir to clarify his stance.
Columbia on Weir
"I think all viewpoints were represented here," said panel moderator Kimberley Marten, a political science professor. "I love when people have to defend their views."
“You didn’t answer my question,” Domi told Weir. What he did say was that he’s “still a couch potato in terms of activism, and I so thank you [addressing Domi and Roethlin] for standing up and telling me that. I thank you for being a voice that I can’t be, that I don’t see in myself. Sometimes I have a bad sense of humor, and I never should have called them that.”
The figure skater seemed to take the open discussion to heart. At least his post-talk tweets seem to show that.
Luke Ellenberg, a 46-year-old activist who was outside holding the banner on behalf of Queer Nation and RUSA LGBT, said his goal wasn’t to prevent Weir from speaking, but wondered why he was chosen to speak on the issue and others weren’t. The same group plans to raise awareness for their campaign at Sir Elton John’s concert at Madison Square Garden today. John is also set to perform in Moscow this weekend, but those pesky anti-gay propaganda laws and concerned parents’ groups may lead to the cancellation of the concert.