There have been several
equality and human rights issues that have affected the modern Olympic
movement. The biggest current issue surrounds the acceptance of lgbt athletes
and their life-style. A recent ruling by the International Olympic Committee
has, to some extent, clarified its position on the inclusion of transgender
athletes, but only time will tell if it brings full trans inclusion.
Here we are, two years
after the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia shows no signs of repealing the
anti-gay laws it introduced just before them. In this modern era news and views
are disseminated instantly around the world via the internet and digital media
and it is very easy to forget that similar controversies didn’t get as much
global coverage as they would do today.
The example I want to give
you today is of an anti-gay controversy that occurred in the run-up to the 1996
Atlanta Summer Olympics. Most people will remember the terrible bomb attack
that killed Alice Hawthorne and injured over a hundred others. The bomber had
previously targeted an abortion clinic and a gay bar. The other anti-gay
controversy involving the Atlanta Olympics gained much national coverage but
received little beyond its shores.
In the ultra-traditional
Cobb County in the Olympic host state of Georgia, USA, concerns about gay
lifestyles had been bubbling under the surface for several months in 1993. A
local theatre had some gay references in a play and complaints were made to the
County Commissioners. During summer the Baptist church in Marietta, the county
capital close to Atlanta, of which many members were very right-wing, held a
workshop at which its pastor, a television evangelist, voiced concerns that the
“gay agenda” was threatening the “traditional family structure”.
A draft resolution was
presented to the Commissioners, co-written by the pastor, which expressed those
same concerns. Among the reasons given in the draft was the recent decision
taken by Atlanta to give some domestic rights to same-sex partners, the Georgia
State governor offering to host a future Gay Games in the city, and the 1993 March
on Washington for LGB Rights. The Baptist pastor and his congregation were
having NONE of that on their doorstep.
Despite a local group
organising an opposition meeting a week before the County Board met on 10th
August 1993 the Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to adopt the resolution. The only
dissenting Commissioner was Bill Cooper. At a later meeting they also withdrew
all arts funding, including that for the local theatre.
Opposition became very
vocal. The Cobb County Coalition formed on 31st August and arranged
rallies, protests and a Queer Family Picnic/Protest and attracted national
attention. The Commissioners resolutely refused to rescind the resolution. Then
matters became more intense when the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games
(ACOG) awarded the volleyball competition to Cobb County on 30th
January 1994. The newly constructed volleyball centre in Marietta had its grand
opening that same week with much celebration.
Choosing a Cobb County
venue was the catalyst for the formation of another protest group called Olympics
Out of Cobb by Jon-Ivan Weaver and Pat Hussein in Atlanta on 14th
February 1994. The group lobbied ACOG most strongly urging them to reconsider
their decision, but ACOG tried everything it could to avoid being dragged into
one side of the dispute on Cobb County’s anti-gay resolution, re-iterating the
ideal of an Olympic truce.
A truce was far from the
minds of either side. Gradually other community groups and organisations began
pinning their colours to one side or the other. Rabbi Stephen Lebow gained
support of 37 other interdenominational clergy in calling for the resolution to
be dropped, only to be followed a few days later by the Marietta Baptist church
gaining 200 clergy calling for it to be retained. A “compromise” offered by the
Commissioners found little support on either side.
In June 1994 the lgbt community
stepped up its campaign. At Atlanta Pride on 18th June Cobb County
Coalition and Olympics Out Of Cobb took part in the march and received huge
amounts of support. Then on 22nd June there was an unexpected turn
of events. Shannon Byrne, daughter of a Cobb County Commissioner who voted in
favour of the resolution, came out publicly as a lesbian. She expressed her
concerns, and those of others living in Cobb County, and of the pains of being
targeted. Then, just over two weeks later Greg Louganis, the greatest Olympic
diver of all time, who had himself only recently come out publicly at the
opening ceremony of the Gay Games in New York (on the same day as the Atlanta
Pride march), called upon ACOG to remove the volleyball contest from Cobb
County. Ironically, or even as a result of the Cobb County controversy, the
volleyball competition at those Gay Games attracted over 20 percent of all the
athletes attending – that’s over 2,000 volleyball players! Greg make his appeal
at a reception organised by the US Olympic Committee at which he received the
Robert J. Kane Award for his Olympic achievements. He used his acceptance
speech to mention Cobb County and the general absence of support of lgbt
The controversy was now
something ACOG and the IOC could not avoid addressing. They announced that they
were considering moving the volleyball competition out of Cobb County as a
means of avoiding unwanted attention and probable disruptions and protests to the
events, carefully avoiding any comment that could be used by either side as
support for their views. The County Commissioners then bounced back saying that
they’d withdraw their venues from the Olympics if ACOG demanded the removal of
their anti-gay resolution, thereby effectively shooting themselves in the foot.
Two days later ACOG moved the volleyball contest out of Cobb County.
But that wasn’t the end of
the matter. As the 1996 Olympics got closer Cobb County held on to its
resolution and campaign groups continued to protest. Various threats from the
more extreme protestors to disrupt the Olympic torch relay which was to pass
through Cobb County in July 1996 were avoided by ACOG deciding to redirect the
relay out of Cobb County in April 1996.
By this time two other US
counties had passed similar anti-gay resolutions – Spartanville and Greenville
counties in South Carolina. Spartanville quickly dropped its resolution after
the first wave of protests. Greenville, however, held out and received the same
treatment as Cobb County, the Olympic torch relay was rerouted out of the
county, much to the understandable dismay of the few torch bearers whose legs
of the relay were cancelled.
As we move through the 21st
century and look around at anti-gay legislation in all levels of government it
seems, at times, that nothing has changed in the 20 years since the Atlanta
Olympics. Change is always gradual and it is to be hoped that all politicians
will soon stop challenging the lgbt lifestyle.