By Samipendra Banerjee
The greatest sports show on earth, the Olympics, concluded recently in Tokyo. This will remain a memorable Olympics for several reasons – the most obvious being it getting delayed by a year due to the global pandemic. In the title however, the year in which it was supposed to be held was retained. Thus while 2021 will remain etched in personal memories as the year of the Tokyo Olympics, official archives would tell a different story, at least on the face of it. This can be read as another instance of the post-structuralist dwindling impact of time as a cultural category and a simultaneous rise in the construction of space as the site of cultural identity and representation. Apart from that, Tokyo 2020 would be very special for India. This Olympics featured the best medal haul for India and would remain an important milestone for Indian sports.
Tokyo Olympics was, however, special for another reason – the Olympics this year saw the maximum participation of LGBTQ+ athletes ever in Olympics history. There has been a steady rise in the number of LGBTQ+ athletes in the Olympics – from 23 in London 2012 to 56 in Rio 2016 to a phenomenal 182 in Tokyo 2020 (2021), according to outsports.com. In this sense, the Tokyo Olympics is being slated as the most inclusive Olympics ever. The Guardian referred to Tokyo Olympics as the ‘Rainbow Olympics’ and as the turning point for LGBTQ+ athletes. CNN, NBC news, France 24 and many other leading international media have celebrated the inclusive nature of this year’s games. Indian print and online media however haven’t been as enthusiastic about the rainbow Olympics. Apart from a few articles in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and Indian Express, this has not been covered by Indian sports media, who have of course been more interested in India’s spirited show in the Olympics this year. A search for ‘LGBTQ athletes in Tokyo Olympics’ in sports.ndtv.com did not return any results. Clearly the Indian mainstream media have other preferences when it comes to sporting news.
The inclusive gender experience at Tokyo Olympics is however too glaring to be missed out. Even if one chooses to ignore or even scoff at the number of LGBTQ+ athletes at the Olympics, the medals they won can hardly be overlooked. As outsports.com tells us, openly LGBTQ+ athletes bagged 32 medals in Tokyo 2020 in which there were 11 golds, 12 silvers and 9 bronze medals. Winning athletes also grabbed the occasion to speak out about their sexual preferences and the question of LGBTQ+ rights, thus drawing adequate attention and support for the cause. British diver Tom Daley, who won a gold medal in men’s synchronized platform and a bronze in the Men’s 10 m diving in Tokyo, spoke out to The Washington Post using the platform for generating awareness about LGBTQ+ athletes. His comments ranged from speaking about his supportive family, an inclusive nation to which he belongs and the realization of the problems that LGBTQ+ athletes from other nations have to confront. Daley was unaware of Russian TV’s slur at him who dubbed him as a ‘British homosexual’ and had referred to the ROC athlete who finished fourth in the same event as ‘a normal guy’. BBC reports that Alexei Zhuravlyov, a member of the Russian parliament, stated on camera: “We stand opposed to all this smut and perversion…” pointing at New Zealand transgender woman weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. Daley’s non-confrontational response to this came with an awareness of a transnational perspective to the gay issue. Daley remarked: “History shows that everything that society is has been dictated from the straight, white, male experience” and added, “If we could come together and use different points of view, the world would be a better place.” ‘Open’ athletes like Daley have certainly contributed to the construction of Tokyo Olympics as a greater inclusive space. Ziegler also draws attention to this unique nature of inclusive space of the Olympics when he told The Guardian: “Athletes from all around the world are exposed to one another, and different cultures are exposed to different kinds of people… Athletes take that experience back into places like Iran, China and Russia and I think it’s incredibly important.”
While the Tokyo Olympics have emerged as a uniquely inclusive space, the same doesn’t hold true for the hosts, Japan. State laws in Japan do not ensure Queer rights and same sex marriage is not legal in Tokyo. The interaction between the transnational body of the Olympics committee and the national parameters of the host nation in terms of gender yields curious results. The space of the Olympics thus emerges as one that simultaneously disrupts and upholds pride rights. The global, transnational culture of the Olympics has always been one of its key features that collides and colludes with the spatial construction of the host nation. In case of Tokyo, the gender inclusive space of the Olympics may have a positive impact on the reception of non-binary sexualities in Japan. Fumino Sugiyama, a former Japanese national fencer and the organizer of the Tokyo Pride walk, believes that the Olympics will change the way LGBTQ+ rights are perceived in Japan. Interestingly, before coming out as a transgender man, Sugiyama had been a woman fencer and says he had chosen fencing because that seemed to him the only sport that did not have different dress codes for men and women. Sugiyama’s discomfort with different dresses meant for athletes of different sexes indicate how normative heterosexuality could be imposing and oppressive for sexual minorities. Makoto Kikuchi, a Japanese lesbian professional boxer, wishes to send a message to other non-binary athletes across the world indicating that they are not alone. The Tokyo Olympics has not only brought greater inclusivity in terms of gender diversity, it has also opened up possibilities of global change.
The situation in India hasn’t been much different from that of Japan, if not worse. ‘Other’ Indian athletes haven’t had much of a scope in terms of social acceptance and have been subject to social exclusion and homophobia. India’s fastest woman Dutee Chand’s example is a case in point. Dutee was the only Indian ‘open’ athlete listed by outsports.com to have taken part in the Olympic Games. Few other Filipino athletes make up the only other Asian country with declared LGBTQ+ athletes in the Olympics. Dutee failed to qualify for the finals of the women’s 100m and 200m track and field clocking well below her season’s best and did not add to India’s medal tally. Dutee’s ‘poor’ performance in Tokyo 2020 was heavily criticised by her elder sister Saraswati Chand, also a former state level athlete. Saraswati was particularly livid in her reactions, blaming Dutee and her coach equally for not giving their best in the Olympics. She mentioned that instead of focussing on her game Dutee has been busy travelling and partying, thus doing little justice to the crores of money spent for her training. They are hence answerable to Indian taxpayers. Saraswati’s reactions however need to be contextualized within the ambit of the Indian social milieu. Dutee hails from a poor weaver family from a village in Jajpur, Odisha. In May 2019, she became the first ever Indian athlete to come out as a lesbian acknowledging her same-sex relationship. Ever since, her family has threatened to disown her and her elder sister Saraswati has been particularly vocal against her. Ironically, Saraswati allegedly threatened her with criminal action after Dutee ‘came out’, inspired by the Supreme Court of India’s historic ruling about decriminalizing same-sex relations in 2018. All of this was after Dutee won a historic international legal battle regarding her alleged condition of hyperandrogenism—a victory that earned her a place to compete as a global female athlete. Dutee had a gender sensitive legal team to back her and has been steadily improving in track and field since then. Being 25 now, Dutee has all potential to run India into gold in the near future but she has to equally battle homophobia back home. Her family, implored by lack of education, traditional notions of morality, and chained down by a heavy dose of compulsory heterosexuality, continues to resist accepting gender diversity. Although winds of change are visible, Indian athletes like Dutee may have to go a long way before the silver lining is visible. Till then, the Dutees of India have to rehash in their own public spheres the old adage, ‘the personal is political’.
Acknowledgement: I express my gratitude to Prof Dhiresh Chandra Nanda, Assistant Professor of English, Govt. Women’s College, Bhawanipatna, Odisha for translating the Odisha TV’s interview of Saraswati Chand from Oriya to English, and for his insights on women’s athletics in Odisha.
BBC. “Dutee Chand becomes first openly gay Indian athlete”. BBC News. 19 May 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-48327918.
Chand, Saraswati. “Dutee’s Sister Saraswati Chand Slams Her For Poor Performance In Tokyo Olympics”. Youtube. Uploaded by Odisha TV. Aug 2, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEawsaZITdU&t=4s
Denyer, Simon. “British diver Tom Daley says sports has ‘a lot further to go’ on LGBTQ acceptance”. The Washington Post. August 7 2021 at 7:14 a.m. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/08/07/tom-daley-olympic-diving-lgbtq-athletes/
Outsports. “At least 182 out LGBTQ athletes were at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, more than triple the number in Rio”. Aug 8, 2021, 11:07am PDT. https://www.outsports.com/olympics/2021/7/12/22565574/tokyo-summer-olympics-lgbtq-gay-athletes-list
Padgett, Donald. “Tom Daley Perfectly Responded to Homophobic Russian TV Hosts. Yahoo news. Aug 9, 2021 9.05 pm. https://news.yahoo.com/tom-daley-perfectly-responded-homophobic-153523118.html
Reuters. “Tokyo Olympics: With more LGBTQ athletes than ever, Games put focus on Japan.” The Times of India. Jul 22, 2021, 18:57 IST. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/tokyo-olympics/tokyo-olympics-with-more-lgbtq-athletes-than-ever-games-put-focus-on-japan/articleshow/84646398.cms
Shevchenko, Vitaly. “Tokyo Olympics sparks anti-LGBT slurs on Russian TV.” BBC. 4 Aug 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58029133
Sugiyama, Fumino. “Athletes Fighting for LGBTQ Rights”. Youtube. Uploaded by Bloomberg Quicktake: Explained. Aug 6, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5lLpgholU8
Topping, Alexandra. “‘Rainbow Olympics’: Tokyo hailed as turning point for LGBTQ+ athletes”. The Guardian. Fri 30 Jul 2021 15.19 BST. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/jul/30/rainbow-olympics-tokyo-hailed-turning-point-lgbtq-athletes
Dr. Samipendra Banerjee, Assistant Professor of English, University of Gour Banga, Malda, West Bengal.
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