On Peter Vidmar’s resignation as U.S. chef de mission

As a journalist, I totally get why Peter Vidmar stepped down Friday as chef de mission of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.

As Peter’s friend, I find the whole thing profoundly regrettable. Candidly, I deplore the rush to judgment amid the political correctness and the intense immediacy of the 24-hour news cycle that in many regards has overtaken our political and media cultures. I also wish we could all find a way to tone down the often-incendiary rhetoric that nowadays seems way too common in far too many conversations in the public sphere  — even in a case such as this one, which in theory revolves around sports but underscores yet again how sports and politics are intertwined.

Again, as a journalist — I get it. I get all of it. Believe me, Peter does, too.

Understand: Peter has been on our side of the journalists’ fence. He was, for instance, a working commentator at the 2008 Games in Beijing; he and I sat right next to each other in the press tribune in the gymnastics arena for a full week. And so he knew now where this was going. As much as a distraction as this might have been on Thursday and Friday, it was nothing compared to the noise once, say, the British tabloids might have seized upon it.

Peter’s participation in two demonstrations on behalf of the successful 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California, and his donation of $2,000 to that cause, was threatening to become a major distraction. He really had no choice.

Understand, too: The USOC accepted the resignation but was prepared to stand by Peter.

Peter Vidmar is one of the finest human beings you would ever want to meet. I said he is my friend — I was proud to call him my friend before this outburst started and I’m proud to call him my friend now.

Here’s what is so troubling about all this.

Roughly within just one 24-hour news cycle, Peter became a symbol of something he absolutely is not. Just because you take a position against gay marriage does not mean you’re anti-gay.

“I fully respect the rights of everyone to have the relationships they want to have,” Peter told the Chicago Tribune in an interview in the story that started all of this. “I respect the rights of all of our athletes, regardless of their race, their religion or their sexual orientation.”

Nonetheless, figure skater Johnny Weir told the Tribune it was “disgraceful” that Peter had been named the 2012 U.S. team leader.

Johnny is fully entitled to his opinion. That’s the American way.

This is the American way, too:

Peter took part in the American democratic process. The First Amendment guarantees his rights to religious expression — his Mormon faith teaches him that marriage is between a man and a woman — and to peaceably assemble.

It’s a pretty straight line from there, amplified by coverage in the Tribune and USA Today, to his decision to step down.

When the retributive process for taking a stand for something you might genuinely believe in can be so ferocious that a profoundly decent person like Peter Vidmar has to withdraw, it has to give you serious pause.

Also: If Mormon beliefs are an Olympic disqualifier — remind me, how did we have those Games in Salt Lake City in 2002?

Moreover, how is it that Mitt Romney, who is Mormon and who led the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, can be elected governor of Massachusetts and now finds himself a credible candidate for president of the United States, and a conservative Republican candidate at that, but Peter Vidmar shouldn’t be the USOC’s team leader in 2012? Really?

This is also the fact — Prop 8 is the law of the state in which Peter and I both live. It passed in the November 2008 election, with about 7 million votes, 52.2 percent of the ballots.

It’s absolutely the case that the Olympic movement stands against discrimination. It’s one of the “fundamental principles” of the Olympic charter.

I’m not here to defend Prop 8. I voted against it. Peter knows that, just as he knows that I respect his position, and the basis of his stance. As a matter of logic, though, isn’t it worth asking the question: is it really discriminatory to hold a position in line with some 7 million other registered voters? More — is such a position “disgraceful”? Truly?

It’s also fact that the Olympic charter doesn’t say word one about marriage being between a man and a woman.

The Olympics is not per se about equality.

It’s about striving for the best of who we, as humanity, are — or can be.

The open question is what that all means. The answer: different things to different people.

One expression of that is, of course, equality. But “equality” is susceptible to an incredible variety of interpretations.

Reasonable people have to be able to disagree about big ideas, and to have dialogue without the dialogue immediately becoming what it did in this instance — inflammatory.

Peter Vidmar has led an exemplary personal and professional life. He would have made an extraordinary team leader. He was an athlete, a double gold medalist; he has led a life of service; he knows the Olympics; he loves the movement.

It’s a shame he got bit by sound-bites. As a journalist, I totally understand it. But as his friend and as a fellow American — that doesn’t mean I have to like it, and I don’t.

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11 thoughts on “On Peter Vidmar’s resignation as U.S. chef de mission

  1. I understand your point, however I must mention this. The people behind this campaign did not “attack” Mr. Vidmar as a person, nor did they mention his religious belief. What they did was point out three major concerns: 1)That Mr. Vidmar violated the Olympic Charter by campaigning for and donating to Yes on 8. 2) That Mr. Vidmar would have had a conflict of interest when it came to LGBT athletes, either open or closeted (what if there had been a gay bashing in the Olympic Village involving a member of the US Team?)and finally 3) The British media would have had a field day regarding Mr. Vidmar’s actions, especially those notorious tabloids, hence making this situation very embarrassing for our country. This was never about Mr. Vidmar as a person. This was about what he did in October and November of 2008 to advance a clearly discriminatory law aimed directly at LGBT people. You may feel Mr. Vidmar got railroaded, but try to look at this from the point of view of the LGBT community. In November of 2008, LGBT Californians were basically told that we were regarded as excrement to our fellow Californians and we were not deserving of equal rights, and we were told to “suck it up”. In other words, they were slapped in the face. Hard. You will NEVER know how close the State of California came to a replay of the Rodney King riots of 1991. I still remember hearing people say that the only way to respond to Proposition 8 was to “tear this (censored)city to pieces!”
    Mr. Vidmar did that. He helped them do that. And you expect these people to ignore his appointment as 2012 Chef De Mission? Sorry. That will never happen. The LGBT community has a long memory. Just ask Donna Summer.

  2. The underlying theme of this article is that you are bummed out for your friend, who is a great guy. So while I appreciate that you wrote this, obviously you are very biased. If this had been someone else other than your friend, you would have written a very different article, don’t you think?

  3. Wow, you really don’t know what you are talking about.

    1. Re: Salt Lake City Games–Could it be because the organizers bribed the IOC? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_Winter_Olympic_bid_scandal

    2. Olympic charter and same sex marriage–the Olympic charter bars discrimination of any kind. . Many people believe prop 8 discriminates against gays and lesbians and by donating to the cause, i.e. funding false ads which scared people into voting for the legislation, you are helping to discriminate.

    3. Yes, Mitt Romney can run for President. But in case you haven’t noticed, Mitt Romney isn’t President. People were obviously put off by his positions and so they didn’t vote for him. Just like enough people were put off by Vidmar’s actions that this became a big enough of a story. And really, it’s not just an outspoken gay figure like Johnny Weir who condemned his actions. The straight (as far as I know) former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation found this issue to be a big concern as did Vidmar’s colleague Aimee Mullins (who, as a disabled person, obviously knows what discrimination looks like).

    4. The stance about being for Prop 8 and not being anti-gay is laughable. What this says to people is “I like gay people. I just don’t want them to be entitled to the same things I’m entitled to”

  4. The fact that Californians voted for Prop 8 does not mean that the law is Constitutional, humane or ethical. In the 1960s, a majority of Americans would not have passed the Civil Rights Act, if it had been put to a vote. A majority of Americans in some states would have voted to continue segregation. To deny children of color the right to attend certain schools. To deny couples of different ethnic backgrounds the right to marry. They would have stated that segregation was one of their moral and religious beliefs.

    Nobody cares about Mr. Vidmar’s faith. The US Olympic team has always had athletes and coaches of all faiths, including Mormons. I can think of at least ten members of recent US Worlds and Olympics gymnastics teams that are either LDS or conservative Christians. Nobody has protested against their inclusion.

    Nobody cares if Mr. Vidmar decides to express his views. I care, very much, that he chose to lobby to have his religious beliefs pressed into public policy. I care that he actively campaigned for a law that stripped many Californians of their right to marry. Their rights to legally protect their families. Their rights to receive the same respect and consideration that heterosexuals have. Prop 8 took away a civil right.

    That is not the Olympic way.

    The Olympic spirit is very much about equality. The entire purpose of the Games is to provide an opportunity for athletes of all nationalities, religions, orientations, genders and ethnic backgrounds to meet and compete on an even playing field, without prejudice or discrimination. To promote peace, tolerance and good sportsmanship.

    How can the Chef de Mission uphold and promote that mission when he doesn’t even believe that all Californians are entitled to equal protection under the law? How can he truly represent the neutral, peaceful spirit of the Olympics when he supports laws that impose religious values on public policy and violate the separation of church and state?

    In my opinion, he can’t.

    I respect everyone’s right to their religious and personal convictions. I do not respect their efforts to impose those beliefs on public policy, and thus force everyone else to follow them.

  5. Maybe I’m wrong, but what I’m getting from this is “Peter Vidmar is a good man so we can overlook this little bit of discrimination that conflicts with his job. After all, most of the population agrees with him.” If that were the case, I’m sure George Wallace or Lester Maddox would have made a great Olympic official. They wouldn’t have discriminated against a Rafer Johnson or Wilma Rudolph, right? At least not at the Olympics where everybody was watching. Those athletes would have been honored up to the point where they tried to live the same lives as everybody else. After all, the segregationists just disagreed about ideas…” Discrimination is discrimination. I’m disappointed in your post, Alan.

  6. Well said, Alan. Wish the USOC had stood beside Peter more publicly. He took a stand on an issue that was on the ballot, and was hung out to dry for it. Sounds pretty un-American to me. Try as we might, we never seem to be able to separate politics from the Olympic movement.

  7. @#1 Doc Marten: “Mr. Vidmar would have had a conflict of interest when it came to LGBT athletes, either open or closeted (what if there had been a gay bashing in the Olympic Village involving a member of the US Team?)”

    Right, because if someone is against SSM, then obviously they have a vested interest in colluding with others to bash gays. If you cannot discern any distance between homophobia and an informed conclusion that traditional marriage is best for a society (even if you disagree with that conclusion), then you need to study the positions more closely. This either-or conception any issue is detrimental to public dialogue.

  8. I’m kind of a stickler for using plain-language vocabulary. The USOC does discriminate: It does not allow people that use performance enhancing drugs to participate. Why can’t athletes use drugs if they want to? Why are their rights being taken away?? I should be able to take any substance into my body whenever I want to. Apparently the posters here mean something else when they use the word “discriminate.” Maybe they mean “discriminate in a way that I don’t agree with.”

    Discriminating is OK sometimes. Deciding which people cannot call themselves “married” is one of those times. It is not OK to discriminate based on race most of the time, just as it is NOT OK to discriminate against LGBT people MOST of the time. Sexual orientation is not exactly like race.

  9. Here’s what’s un-American: a representative who actively campaigned to take OTHER PEOPLE’S civil rights away. That’s FAR more un-American than Mr. Vidmar voluntarily stepping down. This nation’s more on the ropes for the choice of Mr. Vidmar, not being concerned about the British tabloids.

  10. Ok:

    “…his Mormon faith teaches him that marriage is between a man and a woman — and to peaceably assemble.”

    People of the Mormon faith (or any other faith, for that matter) should not be citing their religious affiliation in a decision that affects the GENERAL population. Period. That, Mr. Abrahamson, is precisely why Mr. Vidmar was ill-suited for this appointment. Holding one belief or another is fine & absolutely a person’s constitutional right…but using an OPINION/BELIEF to decide the civil rights for the general population is not. Mr. Vidmar can believe what he likes, but he made the choice to publicly & financially support a *controversial* cause. Why are you, or why is anybody, surprised that there is now…shocker…*controversy* in the matter?

    The USOC would never have elected someone who’d publicly supported a campaign that discriminated against Blacks, Jews, or any other group defined by their race, religion, gender, etc, and that is the bottom line. I respect Peter Vidmar as an athlete & proponent of gymnastics & sport in general, but the notions of him being a “good person” and “great athlete” are moot in this discussion. He made a conscious choice to make a bed for himself, so people need to stop trying to give justification as to why he shouldn’t lie in it.

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