As the torch goes out at Japan National Stadium in Meiji-Jingu Park, the end has arrived for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games — dubbed “the rainbow Olympics” by some for the record number of LGBTQ competitors.
At least 182 out athletes from about 30 countries attended the Tokyo Games, more than three times the number who competed in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, according to the LGBTQ sports site Outsports.
At least 55 of those athletes, who competed in 35 different sports, won medals — five nabbed gold for Team USA women’s basketball alone. In fact, if the LGBTQ Olympians competed as their own country — affectionately labeled “Team LGBTQ” by Outsports — they would rank 11th in the total medal count (right behind France and before Canada), with 32 team and individual medals: 11 gold, 12 silver and nine bronze.
The gold medalists were Brazilian swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha for the 10-kilometer event; French martial artist Amandine Buchard for mixed team judo; Venezuelan track and field athlete Yulimar Rojas for the triple jump; Irish boxer Kellie Harrington; New Zealand rower Emma Twigg; U.S. women’s basketball team members Sue Bird, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi; American 3-on-3 basketball player Stefanie Dolson; Canadian women’s soccer team members Quinn, Kadeisha Buchanan, Erin McLeod, Kailen Sheridan and Stephanie Labbe; French handball players Amandine Leynaud and Alexandra Lacrabère; New Zealand rugby players Gayle Broughton, Ruby Tui, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman; and, of course, British diver Tom Daley, who finally took home the gold for synchronized diving at his fourth Games.
“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” Daley, 27, told reporters after he and diving partner Matty Lee scored a winning 471.81 on the 10-meter platform. “When I was younger, I didn’t think I’d ever achieve anything because of who I was. To be an Olympic champion now just shows that you can achieve anything.”
Daley’s victory — complete with images of him knitting a tiny cozy for his medal — was just one of many queer stories to come out of the Games.
“Let’s go, fight!” she added. “This fight is also for the LGBTQ community.”
The 2020 Summer Games also saw the first out transgender Olympians — including Canada’s Quinn, who won a gold medal for their country’s women’s soccer team. Quinn, a midfielder who uses they/them pronouns, helped the squad earn gold after a matchup with Sweden. Before coming out as trans, Quinn won a bronze with Team Canada at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
In a Instagram post July 22 Quinn said they felt sad that “there were Olympians before me unable to live their truth because of the world.”
Following their championship match, Quinn wrote on Instagram, “Olympic Champions! Did that really just happen?!?”
There were also stories of activism off the playing field: U.S. shot putter Raven Saunders risked having her silver medal revoked after she raised her hands and crossed them in an “X” gesture as she stood on the podium.
Saunders, a lesbian, said the symbol represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” according to The Associated Press. “My message is to keep fighting, keep pushing, keep finding value in yourself, find value in everything you do.”
Saunders, who has spoken about her struggles with depression, advocates for both racial justice and mental health.
“I’m not just fighting for myself,” Saunders told NBC Olympics reporter Lewis Johnson after the ceremony. “I’m fighting for a lot more people. I want to give a shoutout to all of the LGBTQ community. Everybody that is dealing with mental health issues. Everybody who is Black. I’m giving a shoutout to everybody.”
International Olympic Committee regulations ban political statements or protests on the podium, but the organization suspended its investigation into Saunders’ actions after she announced that her mother, Clarissa Saunders, had died.
There were heartwarming stories, too: After she won a silver medal in the women’s quadruple sculls, Polish rower Katarzyna Zillman publicly thanked her girlfriend.
“I called my girlfriend, Julia Walczak, a Canadian woman,” Zillman told Wirtualna Polska. “I showed her the medal. She confessed to me that for the last two weeks she had been one big bundle of nerves. And today she was relaxed. For me it is also a day of great relief and relaxation, after five years, when every day I thought about the race for the Olympic medal and the moment when we will win it.”
Zillman has spoken to the media about being in a same-sex relationship before, she told Sportowe Fakty, “but for some reason, it wasn’t published.”
State-sanctioned homophobia has risen in Poland in recent years, with dozens of cities passing ordinances declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones.” President Andrzej Duda won a second five-year term last year after he called LGBTQ ideology “more destructive” than communism and signed a “Family Charter” pledge to ban same-sex marriage, gay adoption rights and teaching about LGBTQ issues in schools.
Zillman said she was glad to use the Games to advocate for the LGBTQ community.
“I know that in this way I will help others,” she told Sportowe Fakty. “It was enough that I showed up in a T-shirt with the words ‘Sport against homophobia’ and I got a few messages from young girls practicing rowing. One of them opened up to me, described her difficult home situation to me and confessed that I helped her a lot with my attitude. One such message is enough to completely forget about thousands of hate comments and disgusted faces.”
Days after Zillman’s news conference, Italian archer Lucilla Boari also came out after having defeated American Mackenzie Brown to win the bronze, becoming the first Italian woman to medal in the sport.
In a livestreamed news conference, Boari got a message of support from Dutch archer Sanne de Laat, who did not attend the Games.
“It’s super, super, super amazing, and I’m super proud of you,” De Laat said, the Advocate reported. “I can’t wait until you’re here so I can give you the biggest hug there is. I love you so much. Great job.”
A tearful Boari told reporters: “That’s Sanne, my girlfriend.”
While Italy, a largely Catholic nation, does not have the same anti-LGBTQ reputation as Poland, it is among the more conservative countries in Western Europe. Same-sex marriage is not recognized, and anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity are limited.
Joanna Hoffman, communication director for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization that advocates for inclusion in sports at all levels, said the historic number of out Olympians and Paralympians “speaks to how far we’ve come in terms of inclusivity, visibility and representation.”
“The trailblazing athletes at this year’s Games are groundbreaking not only for their own triumphs but also for showing the world that LGBTQ+ people belong in every part of life, especially including sports,” Hoffman told NBC News.
But she underscored that creating an inclusive sports culture required a holistic approach “and never putting the onus on an LGBTQ+ athlete to come out.”
“Rather, it’s on coaches, leagues and governing bodies to meaningfully create and sustain safe spaces so that athletes feel they can be their authentic selves if and when they do come out.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 8, 2021, 8 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of a U.S. Olympic basketball player. She is Diana Taurasi, not Dianna. The article also misstated the age of U.K. swimmer Tom Daley. He is 27, not 2.
Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather
A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.
The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.
“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.
The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.
In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.
Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.
“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”
The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.
“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”
Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.
More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.
Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.
Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.
The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.
So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.
Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.
“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”
Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park
A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.
The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.
He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.
The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.
The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.
“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”
Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.
The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.
House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight
House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.
The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.
The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.
The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.
Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.
“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”
It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.
The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.
However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.
Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.
Haley Talbot contributed.
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