Olympic Biathlete Brian Olsen: Elite & Olympic Teams Should Say ‘You Can Play,’ Promote Inclusivity for LGBT Athletes

Chelsea LittleJuly 10, 2014
Brian Olsen, at age 22, competing in a test race at the 2006 Olympics in Torino. Now retired as from racing, he is an athlete representative both to USBA's board and to the USOC's Athletes' Advisory Council.
Brian Olsen, at age 22, competing in a test race at the 2006 Olympics in Torino. Now retired as from racing, he is an athlete representative both to USBA’s board and to the USOC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council.

Brian Olsen has worn a lot of hats in the nordic community. He’s moved from Minnesota to the Maine Winter Sports Center, where he trained as a junior; to the University of Vermont, where he got a bachelor’s degree in geography; ran the now-defunct frozenbullet.com biathlon website; went to the 2006 Olympics; joined the National Guard biathlon program (and served a tour in Afghanistan); and then began working as an athlete representative first to the U.S Biathlon Association Board and then to the USOC Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC).

­This winter, for instance, found him taking time off from a masters degree at the University of Utah to work as the USOC’s Athlete Services Coordinator for the Mountain Cluster at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“I’ve always been interested in the administration of sport – things like team selection, recruiting and developing athletes, and marketing,” Olsen told FasterSkier in an e-mail interview from his current home on Lake Tahoe (he’ll soon move to Seattle to start an MBA program).

“As an athlete, these things affected me directly, but I realized that my focus should be on training hard and racing well,” he wrote. “Few athletes have energy to spare for attending Board meetings and reviewing their sports’ high performance plans. They should be out training or taking naps instead. Once I retired, I wanted to take on that burden now that my life wasn’t train-eat-sleep-repeat 365 days a year.”

Olsen has recently added another thing to his list: advocating for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes in Olympic sports. Now that he’s no longer competing, he feels that he can be an advocate to an extent that would take a toll on current athletes who need to focus on performance instead. At the recent AAC meeting in May, Olsen teamed up with former NFL player Wade Davis to talk about LGBT inclusion and the You Can Play initiative, which seeks to

“[ensure] equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation… guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success… [and] challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.”

Olsen, who is gay, was not out when he was competing in biathlon, and says that it did affect his performance and his decision to leave the sport at a relatively young age compared to many career athletes.

The athlete reps, from all the Olympic sports plus many non-Olympic sports as well, had a positive response to the talk.

“My sense is that AAC members are, in general, very supportive of moving forward about tackling diversity and LGBTQ issues,” Middlebury skiing head coach Andrew Johnson, who is an at-large athlete rep, wrote in an e-mail. “Hard to say how things will move forward at the NGB level – I think in general elite sports tend to be a little late in adopting issues that are perceived as social or political in nature. Scant resources tend to be spread pretty thin and directed specifically at performance-oriented agendas. What Brian did really well in his presentation is demonstrate that this is an issue that affects performance, particularly in terms of retaining athletes in sport, athletes’ ability to carry out training/competition in healthy and supportive environments, etc.”

Sarah Konrad, a 2006 Olympian in both skiing and biathlon who now chairs the AAC, agreed.

“Brian’s presentation was very effective, honest, and passionate, and drew a lot of interest from individual AAC members who want to get involved with You Can Play now,” Konrad told FasterSkier. “Pretty cool stuff, with a very positive reception. People had heard about it before, as we had a presentation from Hudson Taylor [the founder of Athlete Ally] in January. Hudson’s presentation was much more promotional than Brian’s. Brian’s came across much better, because it was his own story, and from the heart.”

We caught up with Olsen last month to talk about what he believes the biggest issues are facing LGBT athletes in Olympic sports, what differentiates these situations from college sports where there are often liberal campus communities and big support networks, and why he picked now to get active.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

FasterSkier: The Nordic community seems like a very open, liberal community –do you have any comments about why it might not be leading the way on LGBT inclusiveness at the elite level?

BO: The Nordic community is truly a great group of people who together enjoy a really beautiful set of disciplines. While we probably tend more towards the liberal side on social issues, I think that our sport culture is still fairly traditional, stemming from the Nordic region from where it originated. We tend to be a bit more private, a bit more suspicious of those seeking attention, and like in most sports, we’re very unwilling to share our doubts, struggles, and weaknesses. I suspect that most people in Nordic skiing view sexual orientation and gender identity as a personal matter, and that asking someone about it would be prying too deeply, and would make that person uncomfortable. So, we don’t talk about it.

There’s a difference in my mind between being privately and publicly out. A privately out person has told the people who matter most to them that they are LGBT. Someone who is publicly out has made it public knowledge through the media. There are very few publicly out Olympic or Paralympic-level skiers. The role models who kids are looking up to are at this level of our sport; they are the ones who have the notoriety to drive the conversation. This conversation isn’t happening. We seem non-existent, invisible, without a voice.

I’m speaking up because there aren’t any other recent U.S. Winter Olympians who are publicly out as LGBT and talking about it openly, especially in skiing. I’m going against the Nordic grain of making public a personal matter, but if I don’t, then I fear that another kid just like me will have to go through the same struggle that I did. I’m hoping our sport will open up and demonstrate its support for diversity, and that in turn encourages currently-competing skiers to come out and be themselves. At that point, with those role models for the next generation out and open, the conversation drives itself and there’s less of a need for interviews like this.

FS:  Would it have made a difference to you when you were competing, to be able to see someone more like you succeeding at a high level – to have role models who were gay or lesbian?

BO: That’s really the crux of the issue. We aspire towards dreams that we see people like us achieving. Just like American kids are growing up now believing they can win World Cups in biathlon, cross-country skiing, and Nordic combined because they see the likes of Tim Burke, Kikkan Randall, and Billy Demong doing so, so too do kids who are LGBT need to see role models like them on the podium if they’re going to feel confident they can also climb up there.

As a teenager, the image I saw of gay men was the typical stereotype. It wasn’t of an athlete. And it certainly wasn’t of a skier with an Olympic medal in his teeth. I couldn’t relate my strongly-held identity as an athlete to what I was seeing, but also, I couldn’t think away the feelings I had being attracted to guys. Therein lies the circle of confusion, self-hate, and depression in which I wasted so much energy.

The spring before the 2005/06 Olympic season began, I wrote in my training log at age 21:

“I believe that coming out could damage my performances in sport, a place where my self-confidence lies. I don’t want this contaminating that.  What I do know for sure is that half of my life, I’ve grappled with this topic and decision. Simply put, being gay and living in the stereotype for that lifestyle seems to not fulfill the basic reasons for living. In biathlon, I fear there would be repercussions, mostly indirect and behind my back. A large issue is that I have absolutely no role models, at least whom I know. This is a challenge. Yes, so if it’s a challenge, then I need a plan. I need to think about that. I do know that I need help and someone to go through this with. But what if this all turns out to be a hoax? What if I really have some mental disorder?”

See, it’s not just a team climate issue, it’s also a self-acceptance one. In this struggle, you’re not just scared your teammates, coaches, sponsors, and fans will reject you, you’re also rejecting yourself before you even let anyone else in on your secret. Having successful role models who are LGBT is crucial to that second part because it helps young athletes accept themselves by giving them examples of athletes whom they can respect foremost for their athletic achievements.

It’s really the thought of these struggling athletes that frames how I’m approaching this entire issue; they’re ultimately the audience I’m trying to reach and encourage to be true to themselves.

FS: When did you decide that you would make speaking out about the challenges of LGBTQ athletes a priority?

BO: Last August, on the morning I was to deliver a presentation to the bobsled, skeleton, and luge teams to prep them for what to expect in Sochi, I read several op-ed pieces calling for the U.S. to boycott the Games, for the event to be moved elsewhere, or to be cancelled outright. I was so mad. I remembered how long and arduous my journey was to Torino. It wasn’t fair for other athletes to be deprived of the pinnacle of their careers.

But then I saw the videos of kids being taunted and beaten in Russia, of foreigners being arrested. I read the text of the Russian laws enacted just months earlier, basically outlawing anyone LGBT from being themselves. I remembered my Russian professor’s experience being beaten nearly to death in Moscow by the KGB for being assumed gay.

That morning, I just didn’t know what to think, or what was right. I didn’t know how I would respond to athletes wondering what they should do in Sochi. It felt like my identities were colliding. There weren’t any easy answers.

I concluded that there was very little that I could do in the 6 months leading up to Sochi, but I realized that I could speak out publicly and in so doing help other athletes who are LGBT or questioning know they are not alone. If I couldn’t help make things right in Sochi, I could at least help make things right in U.S. Olympic & Paralympic sport.

FS:  How did you get involved with You Can Play?

BO: I researched different organizations working to end homophobia in sport and to promote better inclusion of athletes who are LGBT into their teams. Ultimately, a friend introduced me to two of the You Can Play founders in Denver last fall. The organization helps teams from the high school to professional level create and distribute videos emphasizing that they support their teammates, no matter who they are. I was really stoked about their simple, positive message. It resonated with me, and I felt it would resonate within the Olympic & Paralympic movement.

FS: Were the athlete reps interested in your AAC presentation?

BO: The response was so moving. I was so insanely nervous beforehand, I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve spoken to the council in the past, and I know several of the other athlete reps well. I was fine talking abstractly about the issue, but when it came time to say why it affected me personally, I took a long pause before saying, “I’m gay, and this was my experience.” I’d never told a group that before.

Several reps came up to Wade and me after our presentation interested in creating videos within their sports, and finding resources for their teams that will help initiate discussion. I’m working hard to gather and draft these resources to pass back to them.

FS: Do you think that the USOC is taking this seriously and doing as much as it can be?

BO: The USOC Board of Directors added non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to the Code of Conduct last October and its leadership has been supportive of LGBT rights. I think the Sochi Games really brought LGBT issues to the forefront over the past year, but the conversation became about LGBT rights in general, and perhaps this took attention away from improving the culture within our sports here at home.

We also have a visibility problem: there are just so few U.S. Olympians and Paralympians who are LGBT. I think the USOC and NGBs, and all the staff and coaches in these organizations, everyone wants to do the right thing. But we are far behind the progress made in college sports by the NCAA and in professional sports by many of the pro leagues.

What the USOC could do is take a greater leadership role in this realm by persuading NGBs to adopt non-discrimination policies on sexual orientation and gender identity, and coordinating resources. These policy changes help initiate discussions among administrators, sponsors, officials, and coaches, helping them ask one another:

“What can we do better to support all of our athletes? Would a person who is LGBT feel comfortable being fully open in our sport? How are we going to react when it happens?”

On a second front, the USOC could also leverage the change and cause a similar impact internationally with the IOC and International Federations, like FIS and IBU. The LGBT rights (and human rights) record of a potential host country should be considered alongside the technical and financial details of the bid city. Gender identity policies governing the participation of transgender athletes are in dire need of being examined, standardized, and updated. These international organizations hold the power over these initiatives, but the U.S. should play a leading role in gathering support for change.

FS: It’s already very emotionally taxing to be an Olympic sport athlete, with so much travel and time spent away from family and friends. How much harder is it to be doing that if you are gay or lesbian and haven’t come out?

BO: All athletes are dealing with stress, and part of what separates us from our competitors is how we cope with it. Trying to figure out who I was, making sense of what I was feeling, and keeping it all hidden definitely added a significant amount of stress to what is already a high-pressure sport. Having left home at age 16, contact with my family was limited [and] the travel schedule was so intense that non-sport friendships very difficult to make and keep. So it was my teammates, competitors, coaches, and others around me in the sport world that I relied upon for support. But those relationships were really strained by the shame I felt for who I was. All of this sort of exacerbated the feeling of being alone in this struggle.

Sport became my sanctuary in many ways because when I was training and especially when I was racing, my mind was focused on my performance, and giving it everything. That’s what I loved so much about shooting: everything else in the world disappeared, life was reduced to mechanical fundamentals. And for usually six hours a day of training, my brain didn’t have the blood sugar for worrying.

When I had a bad result or an injury, that’s when I was more susceptible to the sleepless nights, deeper self-doubt, and depression. To coaches, it seemed like I was just worried about my results, but internally, I was also fighting for my identity as an athlete, which is what usually gave me self-esteem. My coaches and sport psychology training helped me bounce back for the next race, but I never solved the underlying identity crisis until after I retired.

Ultimately, I was trapped by the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the U.S. Army. In January 2007, I declined my World Championship spot and enlisted in the National Guard, flying home early from Europe to go through Basic Training. I had to make a conscious choice at that point that I would be closeted for the foreseeable future. But, my motivation to win a medal, and to have the financial support from the Army to do so, seemed more important than an identity and the associated feelings that I was struggling to even acknowledge to myself.

Over the next year, my inner struggle only became more intense, and it made me pull even further away from my teammates and coaches. My training, and in turn, my race results suffered. I felt isolated and sport was feeling less rewarding.  I started to see other options outside of sport as more attractive. When I went back to college to finish my degree, I started meeting friends outside of sport, including guys who were like me. Even though it meant giving up my dream to win a medal, and moving out of a sport that had been central to my life for a decade and been really all that I’d known, I started to feel like I belonged more with the friends I was meeting. I felt liberated to be the real me, I began to accept who I was, and gradually I left the sport I loved, at least as an athlete.

FS: What do you think can be done to make LGBTQ athletes more comfortable?

BO: Talk about it! Make it clear in your language and actions that if someone on your team came out, that you’d still accept them. The fact of the matter is you won’t see the LGBT of teammates on their sleeves. It’s a silent and invisible identity, which is why the whole idea of “coming out” is both necessary and scary.

Since you can’t see us, just assume that someone on your team is LGBT. Assume that when you say fag, faggot, gay, tranny, or similar words, that someone is offended. Assume that when you joke around with your teammates in a homoerotic way, presuming everyone is straight, that you are confusing someone. This kind of vocabulary and activity builds on other things we’ve heard since childhood, and it reinforces the idea in our heads that being LGBT is bad, that it won’t be accepted on the team, that you’ll treat us differently if we admit who we are.

Similarly, we must break the silence and the don’t ask, don’t tell policy that continues to pervade sport. Again, there is so much that we have heard in childhood, and still hear around us today, that makes us feel like we can’t be both an athlete and LGBT. For a few more years, until there are more out athletes to serve as our role models, we need your help imagining that when we came out to you and the rest of the team, that nothing will change in how you treat us.

Coaches can help lead this effort by incorporating LGBT topics into annual reviews with athletes and staff of team codes of conduct. Walk through scenarios, such as how the team would react to a teammate coming out. Talk freely about everyone’s questions, concerns, and apprehension. Make it clear what language and behavior is unacceptable, and as a group commit to enforcing the standard with one another in a constructive way.

One easy way to demonstrate your team’s commitment to inclusion of teammates who are not just LGBT, but who are of any marginalized identity (race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, age, income, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity), is to create a short video of your group speaking to the simple concept that it’s the performance of athletes that matters to you, not their identities. The preparation and production of the video will naturally require your team to talk about the issues. The resulting product will help athletes in your sport who are different see that they have allies, at least in your team, who will accept them. A few of these videos could be really powerful in making the relatively homogenous disciplines of skiing, and the people in them, seem more accepting and accessible.

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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