A Brief History of Homoeroticism (and Denial) in the Olympics

Now that the Olympics are off to a wobbly, terrifying, sans-plumbing start, plenty of public figures are taking the opportunity to rain vicious side-eye upon Putin's draconian anti-gay propaganda law.

Google made a dissenting Google Doodle. Germany dressed its team in rainbow.

A caveat for Putin et. al: if we're going to turn the Olympics into a symbol of the fight for LGBTQ rights — which it seems that we are — then team LGBTQ has a very big home court advantage. Sorry. The Olympics of antiquity were just one big, oily celebration of the eroticized male form; the early modern Olympics were one big, oily celebration of a male form that everyone unconvincingly feigned to not find erotic; and there have always, always been gay Olympians. Acting as though there's no gay precedent for the Olympics is disrespectful to history and tradition and to our forebears. Shame on you, Putin. You ought to be shuttled out of the stadium like a stray dog.

For public perusal, here is a (very) brief history of homosexuality and homoeroticism in the Olympic games:

The Ancient Greek Olympics: 776 BCE - 260 CE

Let us get this out of the way: homosexuality is a modern construct. To characterize the ancient Greek games as "gay" or "homoerotic" is specious, because the ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation in the way we do now. With that said, however, the ancient Greek games were totally a celebration of homoeroticism and the eroticized male form. In a blog post, Greg Laden puts it succinctly: "Everyone knows that the original Olympics… were all about watching naked men. Sure, it was a sporting event, but it was also a softly pornographic group voyeuristic tournament."

How soft-core porny are we talking? Um, well, all the athletes were naked, competitively rubbing their muscly body parts together in a steamy arena while the throngs roared and gnashed their teeth with glee. As an added bonus, the athletes kept their penises tied to their bodies in a way that made them appear constantly erect! According to The Closet Professor:

[I]n order to protect their penis during wrestling matches and other contact sports, the men would tie a string around the tip of their foreskin enclosing their glans, thus keeping them safe. The kynodesme was tied tightly around the part of the foreskin that extended beyond the glans. The kynodesme could then either be attached to a waist band to expose the scrotum, or tied to the base of the penis so that the penis appeared to curl upwards.

The display of the nude body was an integral part of ancient Greek culture; fawning over naked (male) bodies was an integral part of ancient Greek art. As Tony Perrottet, the author of The Naked Olympics, told National Geographic, "The nude athletes would parade like peacocks up and down the stadium. Poets would write in a shaky hand these wonderful odes to the bodies of the young men, their skin the color of fired clay."

The erotic exchange wasn't just contained to the world of sporting contact, nor was it merely specular: the idea of pederasty — a socially acknowledged erotic relationship between a wealthy older man and a younger male — was "integral to gymnasium culture," Perrottet affirms. According to David Potter, a University of Michigan professor of Greek and Latin, men were prohibited from entering the gymnasium in order to make sexual advances. But this wasn't some sexually prohibitive thing — significantly, "the issue was evidently keeping order rather than condemning specific sexual activities." Male-on-male erotic contact was widespread enough to be distracting and popular enough to warrant a ban — the ancient-day equivalent of yoga pants in a conservative middle school!

On a particularly poignant note, homoeroticism was literally built into the foundation of the original games: Potter notes that "The entry to the stadium at Nemea, site of the principle festivals in ancient Greece, is filled with graffiti that include love notes from one [male] athlete to another."

393 CE: Olympic Games Banned

Emperor Theodosius I, who was both a Christian and a practicing giant party-pooper, banned the Games in 393. At the Huffington Post, Kevin Childs states that "the nudity, the joy in physical beauty, the sheer exhilarating mix of the Games were at odds with his appropriation of a new religion and much too redolent of the old." Tellingly, "at about the same time he criminalized homosexuality, as if to reinforce the link between the two." Theodosius was the worst.

1894: Games Relaunched By French Educator Pierre de Coubertin

The Olympics remained mostly dormant for centuries (THANKS, THEODOSIUS). In 1884, French educator Pierre de Coubertin decided to revive them with a focus on more modern concepts, such as fair play and adherence to rules. According to JP Larocque at Daily Xtra, the games served another purpose — namely, that of enforcing a "modern" construction of masculinity:

[I]n many ways, these modern Games were also a reflection of the predominant cultural anxieties of the time — namely, that men were becoming too feminized as a result of modernity and the Industrial Revolution. With farming communities broken up and fathers separated from their sons, many feared that a lack of male influence in homes and in schools would lead to a "softening" of Western males. Organized sports were viewed as a means to reestablish the gender binary by separating men and women and reinforcing masculine values.

(Like basically every old-timey man, de Coubertin was a real dick about women. He once said that "a female Olympiad is unthinkable. It would be impractical, ugly and wrong." Ugh, fuck that guy. Anyway, women weren't allowed to compete until 1900, at which point they could enter in five sport categories: tennis, sailing, croquet, equestrianism and golf.)

1912-1952: The Era of Overtly Homoerotic Posters

Despite the games' new focus on strong, manly, heterosexual masculinity, homoeroticism continued to thrive — both overtly and covertly. As Bruce Kidd, a professor of kinesthesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto, told Daily Xtra, "Virtually every [modern] Games has produced powerful homoerotic images, especially the official posters from Stockholm 1912 through to Helsinki in 1952. And of course, sex has always been part of every Games, which is why condoms are now distributed to the athletes in every Village and quickly run out."

In agreement with Kidd, graphic design blog Right Reading has dubbed the Olympic poster design from 1912-1924 "the homoerotic era," and rightfully so. JUST LOOK AT THEM:

A Brief History of Homoeroticism (and Denial) in the Olympics

Kidd characterizes that period as extending into 1952; here are some other particularly striking examples:

A Brief History of Homoeroticism (and Denial) in the Olympics

"Eroticism and sexuality have always been part of athletics, sport and other forms of physical activity, even though some institutions have sought to channel the discipline and exhaustion of sport and physical activity into sexual abstinence," said Kidd. Nowhere is this sublimated link between the (homo)erotic and the athletic more blatantly apparent than in the posters that purport to celebrate New Masculinity. Seriously, look at those glistening pecs. Damn.

In short, the tradition of lasciviously gazing upon the bodies of men — the very tradition upon which the games were built — was alive and flexin' from the very onset of the Olympics 2.0. I don't know if we can characterize anything about these images as "subtext," but apparently the gay subtext was lost on the masses.

1976: First Openly Gay Olympian Wins Olympic Gold

Even though Kidd maintains that gay athletes attended the games and had covert gay sex there since their inception, it wasn't until 1976 that an openly gay Olympian — English figure skater John Curry — won a gold medal. (Helen Stephens, who was not openly gay, won two gold medals in 1936; Tom Waddell, who didn't come out until the 70s, competed in the 1968 decathalon, but he placed sixth.) "Openly gay" is a slight mischaracterization, though: Curry was outed by a German tabloid prior to the World Championships, and, though it caused a brief scandal, his sexual orientation was mostly ignored in the press. And thus the long-standing Olympic tradition of pointedly overlooking reality continued on.

1982: Tom Waddell Founds Gay Games in San Francisco

In 1982, our favorite sixth-place Olympic decathalon-er founded the Gay Games. Like the other Olympics, the Gay Games are meant to promote a spirit of inclusion and the pursuit of personal growth. Unlike the other Olympics, the Gay Games are actually inclusive.

A few weeks before the Gay Olympic Games — as they were originally called — were to take place, the United States Olympic Committee sued the event coordinators for using the word "Olympics" in its title. Interestingly, the USOC did not opt to sue the Special Olympics, the Nude Olympics, the Police Olympics, or the Dog Olympics. Many saw this as an act of homophobia, which I'd say is a pretty safe bet.

The fact that the USOC would feel that a gay event using the word "Olympics" in its title somehow deviates from the organization's message simply shows how far the willful mischaracterization of the Olympic tradition has gone. The Gay Games' original poster looked exactly like a historical depiction of the Olympics, probably because the Olympics are historically very gay-friendly (fuck you, USOC):

A Brief History of Homoeroticism (and Denial) in the Olympics

Current Day

Because most everything sucks no matter how hard the enlightened humans of the world try, the Olympic games are far from being accepting havens for LGBTQ athletes — although we have made some notable strides. In 2010, Dean Nelson founded the first Pride House for gay Olympic athletes. Over the course of the games, over 20,000 people visited the Pride pavilions, and a similar project was launched at the London games two years later. Several Olympic athletes have come out over the past few years; Obama has sent two of those openly gay athletes to Sochi in his Olympic delegation.

It's notable that several of the campaigns targeting Putin's anti-gay laws have pointed out how homoerotic a lot of Olympic activities are. Here's one good example:

The Olympics have always included extremely homoerotic visual narratives — whether overtly or covertly, intentionally or as the result of some ridiculous failed cognitive dissonance. They've also always included gay athletes. The only real significant change since the Days of Old is the new focus on social responsibility and community over individual glory — according to the Olympic Charter, "Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." Cool values, guys! Let's just try real hard and live up to them, ok?

It shouldn't be too hard: including people of varying sexual orientations in the games is something we've literally been doing for millennia.

Image via Getty.