Free to Believe

Peter Vidmar

U.S. Olympic Committee: Coto de Caza, California

In the spring of 2011, Peter Vidmar, a gymnast who won two gold medals in the 1984 Olympics, was chosen to be the United States’ chef de mission for the 2012 London Games—a volunteer position that would have Vidmar serving as chief spokesman for the United States team. Though involved with the Olympic movement for more than 20 years and recognized by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) as “a natural leader and an extraordinary individual,” Vidmar resigned after eight days, under intense pressure over his support of one-man, one-woman marriage., the self-proclaimed “galactic leader in gay sports,” reported that Vidmar had participated in demonstrations and donated $2,000 towards the successful 2008 California Proposition 8 ballot initiative defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

Vidmar, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he took the stance for religious reasons, but that his views would not influence his ability to serve as chef de mission. In an interview with the New York Times, the president of USA Gymnastics Steve Penny indicated that Vidmar’s beliefs on same-sex marriage had not affected his previous service to the organization—where he had served as chairman of the board since 2008. “Peter has been an ideal chairman for USA Gymnastics and would have been an ideal chef de mission for the U.S. Olympic team,” Penny said. “It’s unfortunate that this issue clouded his selection because Peter is the most inclusive man I have ever met.”

However, U.S. Olympian figure skater Johnny Weir, who identifies as homosexual, told the Chicago Tribune that it was “disgraceful” to have a person with Vidmar's views and actions in a position that makes him the symbolic head of a U.S. Olympic team. “It's wrong,” Weir said. “I certainly wouldn't want to be represented by someone who is anti-gay marriage. It isn't just about marriage, it is being allowed equal rights as Americans. The fact this man who is very publicly against something that may be represented on the American team is disgraceful.”

In a statement released on May 6, 2011, Vidmar said, “I have dedicated my life to the Olympic movement and the ideals of excellence, friendship and respect. I wish that my personal religious beliefs would not have become a distraction from the amazing things that are happening in the Olympic movement in the United States. I simply cannot have my presence become a detriment to the U.S. Olympic family. I hope that by stepping aside, the athletes and their stories will rightly take center stage.”

Former chief executive of the USOC Jim Scherr noted that public advocacy like Vidmar’s could have negative consequences. “I think there are a number of issues that athletes or people in prominent sports roles just shouldn’t take a position on because opinions on those issues are so split down the middle,” Scherr said. “You have to advise them that they should only take a position on certain things if they don’t care about the economic consequences. For example, if I were them, I wouldn’t touch the same-sex marriage issue. I wouldn’t touch abortion.”

“With the proliferation of social media and blogs, opinions get out there so much earlier than they used to, so if people take a stand on an issue, it becomes known, lightning quick,” Scherr continued. “So there’s a greater risk for athletes who take a stand on controversial issues.”

The USOC noted it was unaware of Vidmar's actions on same-sex marriage before naming him chef de mission. “I have never tried to hide this,” Vidmar responded. “It is what it is.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Peter Vidmar