A crowd of people sing the Russian National Anthem at the Stockholm Olympic Stadium on October 6, 2013 while raising rainbow flags in solidarity with the Russian LGBT community.
ERIK MARTENSSON/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty

Sochi Olympics: watershed moment for gay rights?

Updated

The International Olympic Committee enforces a strict rule banning “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda”–except when it doesn’t.

Over the last century, the games have been a stage not only for athletic contests, but for some of history’s most profound political, racial and religious demonstrations.

Some resulted in punishment; others slid by. Some were accidental; others deliberate.

The question 100 days before the games begin at Sochi: will there be another watershed moment, this time, for the gay rights movement.

The Games’ host country, Russia, recently enacted a series of anti-gay measures, one of which bans the expression of “nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” And while Vladimir Putin said just this week that gays will not be discriminated against at the Olympics, opponents fear the law forbids anyone from being out. 

The same Olympic Charter that bans political propaganda also bans discrimination of any kind, so it’s unclear how the rules will play out come February. 

NBC Universal, parent company to MSNBC, holds the rights to broadcast the games. Here’s a look at some of the Olympic moments that changed history:

1. Paris, 1900: First female athletes

The 1900 Paris Games marked the first appearance of women in the modern-day Olympics. 

Fifty-two years after Seneca Falls, and 20 years before the 19th Amendment, two women from France–ironically, one of the last Western countries to adopt women’s suffrage–became the first female Olympians.

Filleaul Brohy and Marie Ohnier competed against men in croquet, much to the dismay of IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin. 

“The Olympic leaders did not want that to happen,” said historian Tom Ecker, author of Olympic Facts and Fables, to MSNBC. “So it was a huge change.”

Gender equality wasn’t fully reached until the 1984 Summer Olympics, when the women’s marathon was introduced. At that point, said Ecker, virtually “all the events men competed in, women did as well.” 

By 2012, each of the more than 200 participating countries had sent female competitors. 

“The growth has been slow, but it’s pretty complete now,” said Ecker. 

2. St. Louis, 1904: First African American Olympians

Four years after inducting women into its ranks, the Olympics saw another first: an African American athlete.  

George Coleman Poage competed in the 220-yard and 440-yard hurdles, winning a bronze medal in each. It would be another 43 years before an African American athlete could be seen participating in a modern American professional sport.

“The color barrier was broken in the Olympics a long time before Jackie Robinson,” said John MacAloon, Olympic historian and academic associate dean for MA programs at the University of Chicago. “It was huge.”

3. Berlin, 1936: Jesse Owens wins gold, undermines Nazi ideology 

Three years before the start of World War II, African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens won four gold medals and set a world record during an Olympics meant to promote the Nazi theory of Aryan supremacy.

Owens was famously given advice from his main rival in the long jump, a German named Luz Long, that helped him to win gold. The two athletes became friendly, posing for pictures and taking a victory lap together. Owens later said “it took a lot of courage” for his blue-eyed and blonde rival to so publicly accept him. He also said that Hitler waved at him as he passed through the stadium, indicating that the German leader took no offense to his victories.

But the image of Owens standing on the highest pedestal of the podium above Long, giving the Hitler salute, is an enduring symbol of Nazi defeat.

4. Mexico City, 1968: Black power on the podium

One of the most powerful displays of civil resistance took place at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black power salute as the Star Spangled Banner sang their praises. 

It was on the cusp of a new phase in the Civil Rights Movement, months after Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Smith had won gold in the 200-meter men’s race, and Carlos took home the bronze. 

The two men were reprimanded by the IOC for their overtly political exhibition, but the iconic moment elevated them from champions to heroes. 

“It was an enormously important moment in the Civil Rights Movement, but it was also one of the most brilliant and powerful ritual protests in history,” said MacAloon to MSNBC. “It raised the question of whether there really are human rights in sports if they’re not extended to athletes when they’re off the field.”

5. Barcelona, 1992: Elana Meyer graciously loses to Derartu Tulu

Team South Africa had a lot riding on the 1992 Summer Olympics, as it marked their return to the Games after more than three decades of banishment. 

Apartheid had just been repealed, marking the “end of a long struggle,” said MacAloon, and allowing the IOC to lift its ban against the country.

Elana Meyer, a white South African, narrowly lost the gold medal to Derartu Tulu, a black Ethiopian, in the women’s 10,000-meter race. But if was in defeat that Meyer managed to bring pride to her country and symbolize the dawning of a new era.

The two women embraced and ran a victory lap together, waving their countries’ flags. Three years later, South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, said in a speech that the moment represented “the sanctity of the Olympic principle that participation is more important than winning.”

6. Sydney, 2000: Cathy Freeman waves Aboriginal flag

Rivaling the legacy of discrimination in South Africa is that of Australia, where racial policies at one time harassed and dehumanized the country’s indigenous–or Aboriginal–population. 

When Cathy Freeman finished first in the women’s 400-meter race, she waved both the Australian and the Aboriginal flags, even though the latter–an unofficial emblem–is banned from the Games. Freeman wasn’t punished for breaking the rules, but the IOC did come down another Aboriginal athlete in 2012 for sporting the symbol of his ancestry on a T-Shirt. 

“Freeman was a hero; people loved her,” said Ecker, who attended the 2000 Olympics and watched her light the Olympic Cauldron.

“I’m still a little deaf in my right ear because the cheering was loud,” he said.

Gay Rights, Marriage Equality and Olympics

Sochi Olympics: watershed moment for gay rights?

Updated