The Queerty Interview

Blake Skjellerup Explains Why An Olympic Boycott Is Wrong And Offers Advice For Closeted Athletes

20130827152442-Blake___Skates_2012_-_Credit_Joni_AndersonSpeed skater Blake Skjellerup is on track to make history as the first out male athlete to compete in the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next year. The 28-year-old New Zealand-born heartthrob, who came out publicly in 2010, realizes that due to Russia’s notorious antigay bill his decision to compete in February is not necessarily a popular one with some LGBT people and their allies who encourage athletes to boycott. However, Skjellerup, who previously competed in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, sees his upcoming bid for the gold as an opportunity to create global awareness of the inequality and barbaric treatment of gays in Russia and change the hearts and minds of many homophobic people around the world.

Yet, as with most openly LGBT athletes, it’s nearly impossible to land lucrative endorsement deals to help finance his training and raise the $33, 000 needed to compete so Skjellerup has launched a funding campaign (complete with nice perks for donations) through Indiegogo. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, Skjellerup chatted with Queerty in his hotel room about why he opposes an Olympics boycott, advice he offers for closeted athletes and explains his penchant for sexy photo shoots.

When will you find out if you’re definitely going to Sochi?

Based on my world ranking from the past three years, I’ll definitely be going. For it to not happen something very, very wrong would have to take place, such as breaking a leg.

You’ll be the first out male athlete to compete in the winter Olympics. What sort of responsibility comes with that?

There’s a large responsibility that comes with it. For me it feels like I’ve come 360 in a way, since I was an 18-year-old watching the Olympics. It was an inspiring moment for me to watch Matthew Mitcham compete and win the gold. He was so open about his sexual orientation that he was my first role model, the first athlete I really looked up to. He was my first role model who encompassed everything I wanted to be. I, myself, have sort of become that person. I’m excited to be that person. It’s about being yourself, one hundred percent. Going to Sochi is something I’ve dreamt of for a very long time and despite these new laws coming into place in Russia I’m not going to go back into the closet. I’m going to compete to the best of my ability and be the person I want to be.

Do you hear from young people who look up to you as a role model?

I do hear from kids who are behind me and say they see me as an inspiration, which I think is great. I hope it encourages more people to come out, especially athletes because it’s such an unexplored ethics in sports. There’s still just a handful of us. I think it’s a healthy thing to have a role model to look up to.

Blake Skjellerup 2You’ve been outspoken against boycotting the Olympics, which isn’t the most popular opinion in the LGBT communities. What’s been the reaction?

I don’t think a boycott is the right thing to do because I believe in the exposure of the Olympics. Creating awareness around the atrocity of these new laws that exist in Russia is what’s going to bring about the change, maybe not in the law, but in people’s rights. Hopefully it will bring about the conversation necessary to repeal this law.

Do you have any worries about your safety in Sochi?

I will feel safe. I can assure you that there will be some attention that comes with my competing in Sochi. I don’t have any concerns for my safety, especially inside the Olympic Village. It’s an open and welcoming place to be in. I think the IOC and the corporate sponsors are doing a very sufficient job of making us feel safe, especially inside the Olympic Village. It’s governed by the IOC and I believe I’ll be safe there.

What would happen if there’s some sort of antigay international incident?

I think the last thing anyone wants is an international incident. This is Russia’s time to show off its country. It’s a nice country. I enjoy visiting there. There’s a lot of culture and history and the people are genuinely friendly. I think an international incident is the last thing they would want and it’s the last thing the IOC would want. The Olympics don’t come around every day. They come around every two years and alternate between summer and winter and it’s a time for the world to come together and highlight what the Olympic games are about.

Would you ever accept an endorsement deal from a company known to have antigay practices?

No, definitely not. That’s not what I’m about. I only want to be aligned with people who believe in what’s right and a company with an antigay stance is not right.

Demitri-Homotography-GT-5-670x455You’ve participated in some rather revealing photo shoots lately. Is this a calculated decision to help your career in some way or is it just for fun? 

It’s a bit of both. I’m very proud of my body. My body is my office. [Laughs] I work very hard to make my body strong and the best it can be. I’m more than happy to show that off. It’s a little bit about exposure. It’s been hard for me to gain exposure so I do what I can. My sport is what I love doing and I want to do it for as long as I can. The reality for me is the money isn’t there and it’s extremely difficult to be a professional athlete with an amateur status. If doing something like that can give me more of a following and open more doors, then I’m happy to do it.

What advice do you have for other professional athletes who are deciding whether to come out publicly?

It starts with being safe. That’s the number one thing. I wasn’t ready when I was 18 or 19. It wasn’t until I was 23 and after my first Olympics that I was comfortable enough with who I was. I knew in my own mind that who I was made no difference to my competitors or who I was in society, but before that I didn’t believe that. I had to bridge that gap myself. You can have someone tell you, but it takes you believing it yourself before you can take those steps. For me being in my sport was the most important thing and I was afraid that being gay would jeopardize that which was untrue. But I can understand how someone on a team sport can be concerned about that because you have a lot of factors that are in place, such as your teammates and the people in the higher echelon who run the sport. You just don’t know what the reception will be when you come out. I think what’s great at the moment is that you see people at the top of sports administration saying, “Hey, if you are gay, we want you to come out. We don’t want you to carry around that burden.” It is a burden and it definitely stopped me from being the best athlete I could be.

Do you see other athletes struggling with their sexual orientation?

It is common. I can only do my best to reassure people who I speak to that it’s going to be fine. If there is a problem it will be sorted out. It’s 2013. The large chunk of society is on the right side here. They need to know that if anything goes wrong, it will be sorted out and they’ll be supported no matter what. It might not be from those people who you think, but there will definitely be people out there who will support you.

What are your plans after the Olympics?

I have a few plans that are mine and mine alone at the moment. We’ll see what happens at Sochi It’s been a tough four years post-Vancouver. I still love my sport and I’m not too sure what’s next but we’ll wait and see.

With your travels and the intense amount of training necessary right now, how difficult is it to maintain a personal relationship?

It’s very difficult. I guess it’s a lone game for someone like me who’s an individual athlete. It can get pretty lonely. I just keep my eyes focused on the prize and the end goal. You have to make sacrifices and you have to be dedicated. Sometimes being in a relationship isn’t the best thing because it takes a lot of work. There are rewards. People do support you in the right way but you have to make sure you have the right people around you to build you up and help you get what you need to get where you’re going.

Help Skjellerup raise the funds to make history at Sochi by donating here.


Photo credit: James Demitri