The Principle 6 T-shirts look great. They're stylish and clever, celebrating an Olympic ideal while subliminally calling out the people who would pervert it. American Apparel rolled out the shirts this week as part of a campaign to help those attending the Sochi Games diplomatically stiff-arm the anti-gay legislation of their Russian hosts.
Principle 6 refers to the part of the Olympic charter that forbids discrimination "on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise." Ever since the Russian government criminalized public discussion of "non-traditional sexual relations" in June, supporters of both gay rights and the Games have searched for a method of protest that doesn't look like a protest. The T-shirts accommodate the International Olympic Committee's ban on political statements and, in effect, the very law they're ostensibly challenging.
The IOC will be thrilled if the conversation remains fixed on its lofty, albeit unrealized, values and never strays into the real issue. But surely at some point in Sochi, members of "the Olympic family'' will step outside the fold and talk about gays and lesbians. They'll feel compelled, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did when they paid tribute to the civil-rights movement in 1968. They'll have to break rules, just as Derek Redmond's father violated security to reach the track in Barcelona and help his broken-down son.
Those moments yielded two of the most iconic images in Olympic history, Smith and Carlos with their gloved fists in their air and the two Redmonds hobbling to the finish line together.
One came from a planned protest, the other from overpowering love. There's no reason Sochi athletes can't borrow from both. The Smith and Carlos example has been cited endlessly as a call to conscience for the 2014 Winter Olympians, but Jim Redmond's spontaneous reaction carries just as much inspiration.
More than 21 years later, his arrival at Derek's side remains astonishing. The terrorist attack on the Munich Games put the Olympics in a security zone most of the Western world wouldn't experience until after 9/11. Somehow, Jim Redmond cut through all of it. He flashed no formal credentials, only a parent's blinkered disregard for anything but his child's welfare and the words "I'm his father'' to wave off the officials assigned to thwart him. In the end, he was celebrated by the IOC and asked to be a torch bearer for the London Games relay.
How will Olympic leaders treat Sochi athletes who have a beloved sister, brother, aunt, uncle or best friend just like the gay and lesbian Russians who have been arrested and beaten bloody for simply being who they are? Can we picture the IOC penalizing a medal winner who thanks his sister and her wife for supporting him?
One of the models for the Principle 6 T-shirt is an Australian snowboarder, Belle Brockhoff, who identifies herself as a lesbian. If she goes to Sochi and talks at a news conference about a partner or her own sexual orientation, will that be deemed banned political speech or a personal statement akin to a pairs-skating team discussing their romance, as John Baldwin and Rena Inoue did at the 2006 Games, and Shaun White mooning over Sasha Cohen in Turin?
It will take guts to say even that little, since the Russian government may see it as grounds for arrest. The IOC may feel forced to hand down punishment to forestall legal action. Olympic leaders pretend they have this under control, but they were blindsided by passage of the June law, and their negotiations to protect Sochi visitors from the sexuality police have not proceeded smoothly.
But ever since the law passed and the prospect of a boycott surfaced, we've been told athletes sacrifice too much to reach the Olympics for us to take the chance away from them. Now how many are willing to make a real sacrifice, take a shot at making history not just at gaining personal glory? Tommie Smith won a gold medal and gave up the celebration of his triumph for something bigger. He and Carlos were tossed from the Mexico City Olympic Village for their rebellion, then vilified when they returned home. A statue of them now sits on the campus of their college, San Jose State. History came down on their side.
Joey Cheek made a different kind of sacrifice, and a sly political statement the IOC couldn't rebuke. He wanted to speak out about genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan, so when he won a speedskating gold medal in 2006, he announced he would donate his $25,000 prize money to support a sports program in camps for Darfur refugees. The organization that received his money, Right To Play, was founded by speedskating legend Johann Olav Koss, and supported by the Olympic movement.
Funding a gay-rights program is an option for any Sochi athlete who wants to do more than wear a Principle 6 shirt. According to American Apparel, the $23 sale price will yield proceeds for LGBT organizations in Russia. But for all their good intentions, the shirts amount to polite conscience cleansers, allowing athletes who wear them to believe they're taking a stand even as they genuflect to the Olympic brand. If accessorized by silence about gays and lesbians, they won't be enough. They'll dishonor the principle they mean to support.