Sweden's Anja Paerson is a six-time Olympic medalist
Paerson retired from alpine skiing in 2012
She is openly gay and is married with a child
Paerson critical of IOC over its handling of LGBT matters
Openly gay ski legend Anja Paerson says the IOC is out of touch on Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues and that she has little confidence that recent changes to the Olympic Charter will prevent discrimination in the future.
Sweden’s Paerson, who retired in 2012 after a glittering career which included Olympic gold and seven world championship titles, claims the IOC should have taken a firmer stance in the controversial build-up to 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Ahead of the Games, LGBT supporters were outraged when the Russian government passed a law in June 2013 prohibiting “gay propaganda.”
The law says it is a crime to publicly acknowledge that you are gay, provide information on homosexuality to minors, or publicly support equal rights for gays.
Paerson told CNN’s Alpine Edge program that the IOC, which at the time released a statement saying it had “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games,” had effectively ducked the issue.
“The Olympic Committee had a huge responsibility in Sochi and they didn’t stand up for human rights,” she said.
“They were hiding from the difficult questions. I think at that point they made a lot of wrong choices.”
Paerson admitted that she had severe misgivings about going to the Games for her work as a Swedish TV analyst and claimed she was not alone.
“I think a lot of athletes were very uncomfortable. I even figured if I should go or not.
“But I made a choice to go. And I stood for being a gay person and I had my family there, I had my son and my wife. I didn’t feel like Russia should choose the way I live.”
Paerson also believes that her own sport’s ruling body, the International Ski Federation, (FIS) needs to step up to the plate and better support gay athletes.
“Even in alpine skiing I think it’s not talked about enough. From the athlete’s side I think it’s really hard to speak up at the Olympics and I think that’s where we have to have changes,” she added.
In the wake of the controversy, the IOC announced earlier this month that it had made an amendment to the Olympic Charter to specifically include the wording “sexual orientation.”
Principle 6 of the Charter now reads:
“The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
IOC President Thomas Bach of Germany described the change as “a very important first step” following a unanimous vote in favor of the move.
“We have to look into the future and try to address the challenges which may arise in the future and the challenges we have already now,” he added.
But Paerson is not convinced this change is sufficient to ensure that future hosts of the Winter Games are held accountable by the IOC for breaches of human rights.
“Hopefully they have learned from Sochi Olympics and will get better in the future,” she said.
Paerson, who was a member of the FIS Athlete Commission, is also calling for her own sport and the IOC to freshen up its membership to better reflect modern views.
“They don’t really follow the new developments,” she believes.
“I hope that both in the Olympic Committee and other sports that the younger generation get more influence because we have a different mindset,” she added.
“The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media, and, of course, athletes,” said the IOC in statement.
“We oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardize this principle.
“During the Sochi Games IOC President Thomas Bach obtained explicit assurances from the very highest level that there would no discrimination against any participant in the Games and this was fully observed.”
The 33-year-old can certainly look back on a stunningly successful career – a twice winner of coveted overall World Cup title – in addition to her triumphs at world and Olympic level.
But all the while she kept her sexuality a closely guarded secret and it was only on retiring from her sport that she put an end to persistent rumors and revealed that she was gay.
In June 2012, a few months after her farewell race, Paerson went on Swedish public radio to announce that she had been in a relationship with her partner Filippa, whom she first met in 2005.
“I never started to believe that I was gay when I was young,” she told CNN.
“This just happened when I met my wife. She was married and I had a boyfriend. Our lives were just thrown upside down.”
The timing of the announcement was a dilemma, Paerson admits and they had been worried about the reaction it would receive.
“We were nervous of course, how people would respond. It was important for us to build our atmosphere, our family, our house, our castle before we let everybody else into our life.
“I think why I didn’t choose to announce it when I was still racing was that I wanted to be a hundred per cent focused on my races.”
The pair formally tied the knot and were married earlier this year and have a two-year-old son, Elvis.
Paerson was trained to her biggest successes by her father Anders, her peak achievement coming in 2007 on the home snow of Are, where she grabbed a stunning three gold medals, a silver and a bronze in the world championships.
It came at the end of a difficult season, but after being urged by him to take a short break from training everything clicked into gear.
“I had about 10 days to mentally prepare to believe that my skiing was good enough to win that gold medal. My dad told me ‘go home, go to your friends, do whatever for two days and come back’.”
When she did, Paerson proved unstoppable across all the disciplines to dominate the competition.
Are was the venue for this weekend’s World Cup competition, and although retired, Paerson has been taking a keen interest in the proceedings.
She has seen compatriot Maria Pietilae-Holmer provide home cheer by taking the slalom title Saturday.
Pietilae-Holmer edged out overall World Cup leader Tina Maze of Slovenia by just 0.06secs.
Another Swede, Frida Hansdotter, was third 0.32secs off the pace, with Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S. back in fourth after a poor first run.
The in-form Maze, who had many battles with Paerson’s during the Swede’s career, won the giant slalom Friday from another home hope hope, Sara Hector.