News | Academics

Gay athlete talks Sochi Olympics, Russian law

Openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir spoke candidly about the role of athletes in the controversy surrounding Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and the Sochi Olympics on Monday night at an event hosted by Columbia’s Harriman Institute.

Weir, who retired from competition earlier this year, will be heading to Sochi as a commentator for NBC along with Thomas Roberts, an openly gay news anchor. His participation in the Sochi Games has drawn criticism from LGBT activists who feel it represents an implicit cooperation with the Russian government.

Four members of Queer Nation, a New York-based LGBT rights group, protested Weir’s speech from outside Barnard’s gates.

“What gets us is that he’s one of the beneficiaries of gay rights and all the things we—the gay rights movement—have fought for here,” Shep Wahnon, an LGBT activist, said.

During his speech in Sulzberger Parlor, Weir called the protestors “idiots”—a comment that he later said he regretted having made—and said they were doing “stupid, uneducated things which, if I was as stupid as I feel sometimes, I would be out there doing with them.”

Weir spoke at length about his lifelong fascination with Russian sport and culture and about his personal struggles growing up gay, but he maintained that he is first and foremost an athlete, not an activist.

“I’m not a rainbow flag-waver,” Weir said. “I won’t go and protest anything, because it’s not me.”

Courtesy of mary holman / Flickr

Weir also said that his presence in Sochi as an openly gay person constitutes a form of “passive activism.” He noted that he risks arrest “just by being there” but said “it’s a risk I’m willing to take to forward equality.”

Despite calls for the United States to boycott the Sochi Games, Weir spoke of the Olympics as “too important to get messed up by politics. The minute I heard the word ‘boycott,’ I felt sick,” he said. 

“It didn’t make sense to me to ruin 600 lives just because a country is anti-someone,” Weir said.

Weir was ultimately unapologetic about both his identity and his personal politics—or lack thereof. 

“I didn’t train to be a public figure,” Weir said. “I hope to set an example of what a gay person can be, but as far as being on the ground fighting, that’s not something I think I’m capable of. That’s my truth.”

Tanya Domi, an adjunct professor at Harriman and an LGBT rights activist, called Weir’s “passive activism” a “lack of consciousness” and said she found it “disturbing.” Domi said that she thinks Weir’s responsibility as a public figure in this situation is to act.

“I know that the Russian LGBT community are desperate for people to stand up for them, and I feel that this moment calls on all of us to stand in solidarity,” Domi said.

Helen Guo, BC ’17, said she felt “an alliance” with Weir. 

“I think in today’s media culture, there’s a lot of emphasis on public figures having public opinions,” Guo said. “I think his was an honest take on what ‘celebrity’ should mean.”

news@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ColumbiaSpec

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Paris posted on

How is getting to jail going to help? Is it not about being yourself the whole point? Being gay is not about a loud scene wherever you go, is about love, is about being yourself regardless what others think about it.

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Paris posted on

How is getting to jail going to help? Is it not about being yourself the whole point? Being gay is not about a loud scene wherever you go, is about love, is about being yourself regardless what others think about it.

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Amy posted on

One's minority position does not always have to override one's other allegiances. Weir has, understandably, spoken about the Sochi Olympics from the perspective of an athlete. The fact that he has not been supportive of boycotts and protests surrounding the Olympics does not mean he's not supportive of Russian LGBT community or LGBT causes, however. Weir has said he thinks the Russian anti-gay laws are horrible and that he supports the Russian LGBT community. He has been very supportive of LGBT youth in the US, but largely behind the scenes and without fanfare. Whether prof. Domi and other activists like it or not, being a public figure does NOT equal having to be a political activist, and activism is not the only way to make a difference.

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Scott Rose posted on

The problem is that Johnny Weir (and Thomas Roberts) are taking a lot of money from NBC to help the network whitewash the severity of the anti-gay laws and climate in Russia. I imagine that you approve of the way various countries enabled Hitler by going to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

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Amy posted on

How is Weir "whitewashing the severity of the anti-gay laws"? If you refer to the NBC broadcast of the Cup of Russia, where Weir was asked if he thinks that gay athletes will be safe in Sochi, I believe his answer was correct. Putin will not want to project a bad image to the world and therefore the games are likely to be safe. If you refer to his earlier comment that he does not plan to discuss the anti-gay laws during the broadcast in Russia--do you think he would get a visa to go to Sochi in the first place if he said he plans to use the broadcast as a platform to criticize the laws of the host country?
In general, I think Weir's presence will have a positive impact on how Russian people view gay people: he is a popular athlete in Russia, they know he is gay and married to a man, and they will first see him embraced by a big TV network as an expert, and then by one of Russian heroes, the legendary Evgeny Plushenko, with whom Weir will be touring the country after the Olympics. Weir speaks Russian and is very personable--his charm offensive is more likely to change the minds and hearts of homophobes than any protest. Like I said, there are many ways to make a difference.

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Clarknt67 posted on

Whitewashing: in his remarks he said the anti-propaganda law was a “law that says you can’t have anal sex in front of libraries.”

If indeed, the law only forbid public sex, we wouldn't be having a conversation. It forbids speech, assembly and association. Something that Weir can't wrap his head around, because, as a privileged American, he can't imagine that people are denied it.

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Anonymous posted on

Most of us know by now that Mr. Weir talks and prays to a bent spoon, so how can anyone in their right or left mind take what he says as serious? 'Nuf said.

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Guest posted on

I see Johnny Weir loves the drama and loves to over exaggerate for flair. How sad for him to call any member of a community he supposedly supports "idiots". In truth, Johnny Weir knows nothing about Russian law on this or other matters; so why was he even asked to respond or give recourse? By all appearances in this instance, he pretended to be a lawyer when in fact he has no license to speak publicly on such legal matters. I guess he got he's cues from Victor Voronov. However, Victor Voronov is not a licensed lawyer, either. That being said, why did a Political Science department of such a prestigious University lower themselves to this level, and why were they so willing to risk and violate ethics and protocol for this? Something is terribly wrong here.

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VictorVictoria posted on

In response to Versha on her comments ~~ I beg your pardon, but Johnny Weir isn't sending the team. NBC and their affiliates are sending the team. Wow. Mr. Weir really is full of himself, these days. I thought it was just a summer thing.

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Luke Ellenberg posted on

There was more like 10 activists.
What was Harriman Institute thinking? Will they invite Britney Spears for her views next?

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Anonymous posted on

Johnny Weir loves drama. That's all he has, now. It's sad for him to call members of a community he supposedly supports "idiots". Pot calling the kettle much? Johnny Weir knows nothing about Russian law, period; so why was he asked to respond and to a small group of selected females? You could say he pretended to be a lawyer when in fact he has no license to speak publicly on such legal matters. I guess Victor Voronov is showing him the ropes, but Victor Voronov's, IF he had a license, has been suspended; and so he isn't a licensed lawyer either and really shouldn't speak publicly as though he IS one. That being said, why did a Political Science department of such a prestigious University lower themselves to this level, and why were they so willing to risk and violate ethics and protocol for this? Something is terribly wrong. Something is not adding up here.

I hope all people keep in mind that Johnny Weir talks, prays to a bent spoon because, in his own words, he believes that in doing so it connects him with a certain someone, a female, who claims to be a powerful witch. That is all.

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Anonymous posted on

Oops, meant to put the upper paragraph in quotes as my response to Guest. My comment is the shorter, bottom paragraph. Sorry.

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Blame Me posted on

It's sad Johnny Weir has no other recourse now but to blame an innocent for his own immaturity and wrongdoing in this matter. Mighty Babylon has fallen, indeed. What a terrible thing to do and be famous for. Shame on you, Johnny Weir.

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