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.