Keeping with China’s “zero tolerance” approach to the pandemic, the 2022 Beijing Olympics will likely be remembered for its unprecedented security measures. However, this year’s Winter Games will also be cemented in history for its record number of openly LGBTQ competitors.
At least 35 of this year’s Olympic athletes are openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, more than double the amount of queer competitors from the 2018 winter competition in PyeongChang, South Korea, according to the LGBTQ sports website Outsports.
“That number reflects where we at OutSports believe sports is today: Sports in Western society is widely accepting of LGBTQ people, and these athletes at the most important moment in their entire careers agree,” said Outsports founder and longtime LGBTQ advocate Cyd Zeigler.
This year’s LGBTQ Olympians will take part in nine sports, with the majority competing in ice hockey and figure skating. The queer competitors will be venturing to China’s capital from 14 countries, including Western superpowers such as the United States and France, and former Soviet republic Armenia. And with 10 openly LGBTQ athletes, Team Canada has already snagged the gold for having the most out competitors at the Games.
But while the number of openly LGBTQ athletes at this year’s Winter Olympics has doubled since 2018, the tally falls well behind the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games, which had more than 180 out athletes, an Olympic record.
Acknowledging that this Games’ total may not be as “eye-popping” as last year’s, Zeigler contended that the Summer and Winter Games are difficult to compare, especially since the Summer typically has around 11,000 competitors, while the Winter has about 3,000.
Olympic figure skating will make LGBTQ history of its own at this year’s competition, hosting the first out nonbinary person to compete in the Winter Games: American figure skater Timothy LeDuc.
But in an interview last month on NBCLX’s podcast “My New Favorite Olympian,” Leduc — who uses gender-neutral pronouns — revealed that breaking barriers as an LGBTQ athlete comes with its own set of unique challenges.
“They’re going to be the people that don’t understand it or would be very quick to push me back into the box of, you know, they look at me, they see that I have a beard or they look at maybe my physical characteristics and say, ‘You’re a boy; act like a boy. What are you doing?’” they said.
Prior to LeDuc, the first openly nonbinary and transgender Olympians competed in the Tokyo Games last year.
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competed in the women’s super-heavyweight 87 kilogram-plus (192 pound-plus) category, BMX freestyler Chelsea Wolfe traveled to Tokyo as an alternate on Team USA and nonbinary American skateboarder Alana Smith competed in women’s street. And Canadian soccer player Quinn became the first openly transgender and nonbinary athlete to win an Olympic medal — a gold — following Team Canada’s defeat of Sweden in the women’s final last August.
But while Team USA will gain an Olympic first with the addition of LeDuc, it will also be losing some star power.
In 2018, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon made history as the first openly gay men to compete in the Winter Games for the United States. And since competing in the Games, the two have become queer superstars, appearing in top-performing music videos and television shows (including “Dancing With the Stars”) and on magazine covers and the red carpet at the Oscars.
But at this year’s Winter Games, Kenworthy will be competing for Great Britain — where he was born — and Rippon will be on the sidelines, coaching U.S. figure skater Mariah Bell.
Reflecting on his experience four years ago, Rippon — who is also the first openly gay athlete from the U.S. to medal in the Winter Games — said that competing openly on the world stage was a “huge honor” and comes with “responsibility” for the whole LGBTQ community.
“One thing that athletes have here is this amazing opportunity to share things about themselves that people from anywhere in the country, or anywhere in the world, can sometimes relate to, and it can be life changing,” Rippon told NBC News.
“You know, a queer athlete can be competing at the Olympic Games and for people who are watching in a country where being queer is punishable by law, that can help move things forward — hopefully in the mind of that person and hopefully in like the societal complex of the world — to see that there can be out queer people, and here they are on the world stage being successful at the highest level of what they do,” he added.
And with this year’s Games being held in China, some advocates — like Joanna Hoffman, the communications director at the LGBTQ athletic advocacy group Athlete Ally — argue that competing openly will be more “important” than ever.
“It’s not that surprising that there are no openly LGBTQ+ athletes representing China at the Games,” Hoffman said.
“We would want to make sure that if athletes are speaking out, they’re not going to get arrested or have something happen to them,” she added.
Homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997, but in recent years, the country has worked to limit LGBTQ activism and voices.
After 11 years in operation, Shanghai Pride canceled its annual LGBTQ celebration in 2020 and said — without explanation — that it would no longer hold the event. Similarly, a Chinese LGBTQ advocacy group that has led many of the country’s legal cases to expand LGBTQ rights announced in November that it would be halting its work “indefinitely” without saying why.
Leading up to the Beijing Games, human rights groups have condemned the detainment or sentencing of five high-profile human rights activists in recent weeks and warned against the censorship of competing athletes. And last week, the gay dating app Grindr was removed from several Chinese app stores after the country’s cyberspace authority vowed to ensure a “healthy, festive and auspicious online environment” for the Lunar New Year, which began this week.
While visiting teams have been warned by Beijing Olympics officials to be “responsible” with their words, Rippon countered that now is the time to apply “pressure” over the country’s human rights abuses, including when it comes to China’s LGBTQ community.
“If I had to put myself in the shoes of the athletes who are out here in China, I mean, I would probably be just as loud and obnoxious as I normally am,” Rippon said. “I find so much joy in being myself that I don’t feel like if I were to travel anywhere I would want to compromise that.”