Saturday 30 January 2016

Olympic Alphabet : H is for ...


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 athletes.

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.


  1. Cobb County should look back in their governmental history and remember the reason Cobb County did not get any Olympic games because of the Cobb County government ridiculously trying to pass laws against the gay community in 1993. And the impetus for what happened was simply a play at Theatre in the Square (of which I was a 30 year patron) that had an invisible gay couple in the play that got waved at by their neighbors in the play "Lips Together, Teeth Apart".They are doing now is, essentially the same. Every person in the Cobb Community has value - no matter their sexual orientation, color or size. Putting signs on doors excluding customers is not good businss. It is incredibly ignorant of any business owner to exclude customers because of their sexual orientation. Where do we go from here? Are business owners going to stand outside their businesses and interview all customers personal issues before they allow them to be a customer? What about having signs banning pornographers, pedophiles, child and spouse abusers? Shouldn't they also be included in your "Not Allowed to be Our Customer List"? I am a Cobb County business owner for 30 years and I have watched the ignorance of the "Gay" exclusion protested and was part of the so-called "Queer Picnic" of 1993 (shameful) that Cobb County "allowed" as a counter protest of the "Queer" protestors. My son was written about in the local newspaper because of a sign he was carrying.
    Please, Cobb County, stop this ignorance, accept everyone and GROW your business. To do otherwise, is shameful.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I entered this responde here because we are, again, facing these same issues. I was researching the date because I couldn't remember it. In doing so, I came upon your blog.

  3. Thank you for your contribution Margaret Kendall. It is always good to hear from people who were personally involved in these events.