Sports On Earth… And Sochi

From Sochi: Q&A with Sports Writer, Chuck Culpepper

Chuck Culpepper is on the ground in Sochi and seems to be filing around the clock for Sports on Earth. Sochi is loaded with sports scribes for the Games, but Chuck is a rare animal, he’s a gay sports writer. Just after the 2013 Super Bowl he came out (to his readers) in a very personal and thoroughly enjoyable column:

In my offbeat life, I have clomped my klutzy size-13 shoes in two worlds you might call disparately disparate. On six continents I have hung around excellent gay people who find sports an unappealing mystery and look flabbergasted at my interest. I have hung around excellent sportswriters who would never stray near a gay bar unless they wandered too far down Bourbon Street at a Final Four. The gay people seldom ask about the sports people, and the sports people seldom ask about the gay people.

Chuck has been humping it double extra overtime covering the action in Sochi but he was able to carve out some time to do a Q&A with us. If you don’t follow him on twitter, shame on you. You’re missing one of the best sports feeds there is, gay or straight.

How did you come to cover sports from so many different locations? What’s personally and professionally  rewarding for you about that jet-setting life?

It all came about piecemeal. I always did love the foreign assignments – Barcelona ’92, Sydney ’00, Athens ’04, Wimbledon, etc. – and my former and wondrous employer, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, once sent me to Europe for a slew of summertime events (1998) simply because they knew I loved all the roaming.

Still, this habit accelerated after I became one of those “love exiles” (foreign same-sex partner – Colombian in my case – and no immigration rights to live legally in the U.S.). My Other Half and I, somewhat excited but pretty much scared to shards, moved to London in 2006, with no job and no flat at the time. After that my travel became more varied with more regions, and from there I became addicted to frontiers, through a Los Angeles Times contract in London and especially a subsequent two-year job in Abu Dhabi.

Culpepper 2For whatever reason, maybe because I came from a small (Virginia) town and remain grateful for this unforeseen path, I have never tired of boarding jets. I still love when they aim airborne. I still get excited about flight routes. I still take photos of screens that show the destination or never-before-seen airlines parked at the terminal. (I saw an Air Madagascar at Guangzhou!) I still can’t believe when I’m going from Bangkok to Seoul or Dubai to Guangzhou or Amsterdam to Cape Town or Amman to Addis Ababa or New York to Austin. This will to roam has gathered rather than receded. It seems to be getting worse. When I was riding around the Auckland, New Zealand, harbor while covering the Volvo Ocean Race (sailing) race in March 2012, I already had been at this wandering for a long time, yet still kept looking around thinking, I cannot believe this . . . I cannot believe this . . . I cannot believe this . . .

You’ve been to so many places. What, if any, are some of the lessons or trends that tend to ring true from place to place, culture to culture?

Here’s one: I find the vast majority of earthlings are just trying to struggle through the day.

And here’s one: I grew up thinking it a nice world with hard pockets; now I think it’s probably a hard world with nice pockets.

And: There’s so much more beauty to see than I ever realized, so that the whole total of desired sights becomes intimidating; how will I get to everything? (Did anybody ever tell us of the beauty and grace of, say, Oman? Isn’t it something we could get through entire childhoods without hearing of Iguazu? How did I go all the way to Auckland and miss the glowworm tour?)

And (but this line belongs to Bertrand Russell): All sin is geographical.

And: I’m overwhelmed by the overwhelming prevalence of English; just yesterday, a young Russian woman told me she finds it a problem when young Russians can’t speak English.

And: The common refrain of the United States as “greatest country in the world,” coming even from political figures at campaign rallies, doesn’t help us. It’s pointless and ill-mannered and quite possibly damaging to our motivation. What do they give you for that, anyway, the BCS trophy?

I remember traveling in Russia in the early 90’s; it wasn’t very tourist-friendly, or friendly in general. What’s Russia seem like these days and how were you received on arrival?

A dear (media) friend and I were talking about how this might be the most inscrutable Olympics we’ve known, the one on which we have the least grasp of the setting. (I’ve been to four foreign Olympics; he has been to six.) The wonderful young volunteers give a bright and hopeful picture of the Russian future, but even though they hail from all over the country, the fact is we’re in a resort, and resorts don’t tend to give real pictures.


But, same as for you, it’s not a chirpy-friendly place in general. I have a longstanding habit of smiling at people; about 10 percent smile back here as opposed to, say, the Philippines, where everyone smiles back. There’s that sense of some deep and unknowable reality here, something beyond the visible reticence or sullenness, as if the people have a much better read on us than we do on them. The very-oft-quoted Churchill line on Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside in enigma” – has come to make sense after my scientific sample size of, what, 17 days now.

You often mine out humor of the stories you cover – whether it’s the venue, the competition or the athlete. What strikes you as funny about Sochi so far?

I think it’s funny they had all these loud, graphic problems with people checking into their living quarters (especially the stray dog in one room), and that they’ve still been doing work in the hallways where I stay, but that the buses and so much else have run with excellent efficiency. (I’ve had two long bus waits the entire time.)

I suppose it’s funny that, with Vladimir Putin present, they got a hockey goal disallowed in the third period on home ice (even as I don’t root for anybody when I go to games).

I definitely think the demanding questions posed to the men’s hockey coach are funny as they come into my earphones through the interpreter, because they remind me there’s pressure to win in so many pockets of the world.

I think it’s funny what Martin Rogers of Yahoo! wrote, that the young women here don’t so much fancy the men because the men smoke and drink too much and don’t tend to want to talk to the women.

I suppose the divide between the older Soviet-era Russians and the young is funny, because I can just see Putin et al signing off on having t.A.T.u., the female duo who once played lesbians in a video, play before the Opening Ceremony. What a moment that must have been.

When you came out, you found a lot of support. What if anything did you hear from athletes who you either know or cover? Are you treated differently now?

I have hopscotched for a long time now, so that issue applies to me less than it would, say, a beat writer for a certain team, or a columnist who works principally a certain city. The difference I notice is in myself.

CulpepperOnly after writing that column did I realize that for years, decades, I had gone to stadiums – my principal workplace! – with that vague fear of the unknown. This had dissipated with time, of course, but I realize it had spent a lot of time swirling in me: What might happen to me? Who might use this against me in some way? To have that fear removed was to comprehend it had been both present and powerful in a way I’d barely noticed. How strange.   There was plenty of disagreement whether gay and lesbian athletes should compete, withdraw, protest or say nothing about Russia’s anti-gay “propaganda” laws while in Sochi. What do you think?

We have a historic lesson sitting right there and shouting at us about how well withdrawal works. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow had no effect on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which wore on until 1989. It failed in every sense including fairness to the American athletes. I view that, among other things, and I think you engage. I’m in line with the Elton John approach, which is that you do a lot more good by going and doing your concert (even though I never do concerts) than by staying away in a huff even when the huff has merit.

There has been little chatter about it here, very little in the way of stances from athletes. When the great Bruce Arthur in the National Post (Canada) wrote of a Canadian snowboarder who did speak out about the various real-life issues involved here (including the anti-gay-propaganda law), it came as a reminder that, Oh, yeah, we’re in a bubble. I went to the beautiful gay club – doorman, just to make sure: “This is a gay club” – and wrote about a gay male Russian living in the U.S. but who used to live near Sochi, and he said the anti-gay-propaganda law will change in 20 years, that it’s an old Soviet relic, that gay life in Russia is good generally.

My feelings go in three directions here: respect for the choice of any athlete of any orientation who chooses not to address it here, big respect and wishes for future benefit for anyone who does speak out, and boundless gratitude toward athletes such as the American figure skater Ashley Wagner for her beautiful candor.

Have protests ever accomplished anything during Olympics or other large, global sporting events?

Nobody can measure it, but I think Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous Black Power gesture on the medal stand at Mexico City 1968 did help.

You recently wrote about social problems in Russia, and in Brazil and Qatar also. Why are these massive international events occurring in places like this – where they invite controversy?

I’m curious where all this will go from here. Certainly there has been a sentiment and a push to bring these events to fresh places, and the tears of Brazilian President Lula at the choice of Rio de Janeiro 2016 stated how much the world’s confidence can mean. When Qatar won the World Cup for 2022, I thought it healthy to take the world’s biggest event to an entirely new region and let the cultures mingle even though, just myself, I’d much rather go to a country with a lot more debauchery (such as Brazil).

soeStill, maybe there’s a sense the IOC, FIFA et al are tiring of the range of distracting issues – Sochi 2014, Rio 2016, Russia 2018, Qatar 2022 – and wish to return to places more politically or economically pristine. Many thought that premise helped boost Tokyo to the 2020 Summer Games (and as a metropolis-lover, I salute that one), and I’d give a careful look to whether the 2022 Winter Games to go Oslo, as they should given a city with so many venues in place and a country that assembled one of the greatest Olympics ever in 1994.

What’s a normal day going to look like for you in Sochi? What events are you zeroing in on?  How often will you file?

There’s limited sleep. There are two columns per day, usually, sometimes three. And it’s a privilege to cover this. I’m really into hockey (especially the plight of the homestanding Russians), Mikaela Shiffrin (the impressive 18-year-old American slalom skier), and, above all, the internationalism. I love going to figure skating and feeling first-hand the Russian knowledge and heritage and zeal for that sport.

The truth for me is, though, there’s something interesting at every venue. Having gone to biathlon the first day, I’m still amazed at how the biathletes crumple to the snow in near-death once they cross the finish.

How will the LGBT controversy in Russia impact your coverage?  How do you think it will impact coverage for other outlets? Are rights holders under different pressures?

Once the competitions get rolling at any Olympics, the whole thing always carries away your previous life. I no longer remember who I was on February 1. It’s a zone, a bubble, a corridor, whatever. The events, the athlete bios, the storylines, all of it, pushes aside bigger issues for two weeks. That might be part of the point, still.

Before this Olympics, I thought it presented the biggest coverage puzzle I’d ever seen for an event. It took me a while to formulate my approach. I don’t think we help gay Russians by barging in here and sneering. I don’t think we help gay Russians by coming in and letting the issue override the Games. I’ve written one full column here about the LGBT controversy, have mentioned it in two or three other columns and will write on it at least once more. I’m trying to find the right balance on the outside chance it might just help a little bit somehow.

How do you see social media playing a role – via fans, athletes or media? Are you 24/7 on social? Are you under any restrictions?

Culpepper 1I am about 12/3.5 on social. I try to stay off it while watching an event although I couldn’t resist during U.S.-Russia men’s hockey. The Olympics bring that rare case where you attend an event (Olympics) but miss most of it (all the sports you’re missing when you choose to watch any one), so there are events I’ve followed by Twitter.

I know of no restrictions, although I did avoid raciness – self-censor, I guess – in my column on how the idea of having the Russian government spy on us in our rooms does have its positives (such as that I was going to stop at 80 pushups one day but, thinking someone might be watching, continued to 100).

What are people talking about in Sochi when it comes to LGBT issues. (Even though it seems brown), what’s the water cooler chatter among the athletes, journalists, officials and fans?

Naturally, I’m among media people often. The needle has moved a bit there until it seems a foregone conclusion that the anti-propaganda law is atrocious. This still amazes me in some way. I never expected to live in this kind of supportive environment.

We do feel set apart from the actual citizens, with the language only part of it. I have heard of Russian gay people feeling grateful for our support and of Russian gay people feeling weary of it because it might bring them unwanted attention, and I have talked to Russian gay people who say their life here is good. The club is wonderful; I’m hoping to have enough energy in the tank to return on the weekend.

Sochi clubbing

Every major international sports event, we seem to have an argument about whether politics belongs in sports or not. Does it? Can or should that issue ever be laid to rest?  If so, how?

It can’t and shouldn’t, I would say. I think we’re always chattering, trying to find that balance somewhere. I often do think covering sports is sort of a window into everything: politics, physiology, sociology, art, psychology and, of course, pharmacology.

Have you ever gone back to an Olympic venue years later and witness the Game’s legacy first-hand?  Where do you see Sochi in 2024 or 2034?

That’s a marvelous question. I find a distinct melancholy in visiting old Olympic sites, either because of my memories (if I went) or my perceptions (if I didn’t go). I once went to the site of the 1976 Montreal Summer Games, and it just looked so silent, as did Munich (1972). Sometimes in Atlanta I comb through that Olympic area and barely even think about the Olympics.

But if that can happen in mighty Barcelona, it can happen anywhere, I guess, and in the summer of 2012 I went back to the site of the first Olympics I covered, to Montjuic, the hill above the city and the zone that staged so many events in that spectacular Olympics of 1992. I savored the view again. I paid 10 euros and swam in the pool that held the Olympic swimming. I also felt just a little sad at the relative tranquility.


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