Outspoken British Olympian on Brexit, Rio, and the Perils of Speaking Out

Outspoken British Olympian on Brexit, Rio, and the Perils of Speaking Out

Outspoken British Olympian on Brexit, Rio, and the Perils of Speaking Out

Laurence Halsted shows that being an athlete doesn’t mean checking your conscience at the door.


In August, Laurence Halsted will head to the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics to represent Great Britain in the sport of fencing. But Halsted is not just in Rio to play; he is a believer that as an Olympian, he has an obligation to be part of the tradition of athletes who don’t just “shut up and play,” but say something. In May, he wrote an essay for The Guardian titled, “Olympic athletes must exercise their right to speak beyond their sport.

In it, he issued a clarion call for Olympic athletes to rise up to challenge injustices linked to the Rio Games. In this interview, he speaks some truth about Brexit, Brazil, and the importance of being an athlete unafraid to speak out.

How could Brexit impact Great Britain’s future in international sports?

Whilst I think that the long-term effects will be neither as bleak, nor as utopian, as hardl-ine Remain and Leave campaigners will have us believe, there are certainly aspects of this decision which I find particularly saddening. The wrenching apart of the UK, coming straight after Scotland voted by a small margin in their own referendum to remain a part of it, is one such aspect. A major reason for Scotland deciding to stick with the UK was their continued membership of the EU, and since that is now due to be retracted they will most likely take to the ballot boxes again, this time with a reinforced will for independence.

Whilst there are some sports where the home nations of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales compete separately (e.g., football and rugby), in the Olympics we have always come together as one, unified British Team. We are one of only three countries to have competed in every modern Olympics, and the only country to have won at least one gold medal at every summer Games. The British Team has a long, inspiring tradition which, in my mind, can represent a real source of pride for a people who historically have found pride in many of the wrong places.

If Scotland does achieve its own independence that could well mean that in Rio 2016 I will be amongst the last members of Team GB as we currently know it, and that is a disheartening thought. It goes heavily against my personal ideology that we should rather be removing barriers between people, and in this case even more so because I have always identified myself more as British than English. I guess this stems largely from representing Great Britain ever since I was 15. There really is nothing much more efficient for dissolving differences and fostering connection between people than working towards a shared goal, such as you find in any sports team.

Are other athletes are speaking out?

Yes, actually! In the run-up to the vote there were a number of sportspeople and celebrities voicing their opinions, mostly, if not entirely, in favor of remaining in the EU. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a statement posted by David Beckham, detailing his positive personal experiences of being an integral part of Europe and why he was voting Remain. It was simply a statement about why he was voting that way, but it garnered thousands of responses, the vast majority of those that I read being vicious denunciations of Beckham and reasons why he should just keep quiet on the subject. Even keeping the right to free speech aside, I think that Beckham was showing exactly the kind of responsible and considered approach that we could do with a lot more of from our cultural icons. This referendum was actually the first time where I have really felt that a significant number of British role models were taking their position of responsibility very seriously in that respect. And at a time where the politicians on both sides were conducting divisive, fear- and hate-filled campaigns, many celebrities were modeling a more respectful, considerate approach to the debate.

In an essay you wrote for The Guardian, you noted, “It would be irresponsible not to take notice of the outcry in Rio around hosting the Olympics while the health and social well-being of everyday cariocas suffer.” What is it specifically about the situation in Rio that is motivating you to speak out?

While there are some pretty saddening consequences of these specific Games—for instance, the vast public expenditure at a time of severe economic and health crises in Brazil, or the uprooting of thousands of people from Vila Autódromo—my motivation to speak out is born more out of the fact that I see these negative side ­effects as inevitable byproducts of the current Olympic system rather than unfortunate one­-of-a­-kind exceptions isolated to Rio 2016. I grew up enthralled by the Olympics and still have an enormous appreciation for what they represent, and so I can’t stand the fact that there exist justifiable reasons for people to feel the exact opposite. So rather than stand by and watch the Olympics’ continued decline into just another destructive facet of celebration capitalism, I want to do my bit to try and draw it back to its purer, humanitarian traditions.

The “mosquito in the room” is Zika. Can you give your thoughts about these concerns, especially the gap between the concern by athletes/ tourists and people in Rio?

As part of Team GB we have been kept well informed on everything to do with the Zika virus. For myself, I am not particularly worried because I am not a pregnant woman and do not plan on becoming one in the near future. The media has certainly whipped up an unnecessarily big storm around it, but we can only expect that. Having said that, I do feel for those athletes for whom pregnancy is on the radar, and it did come into consideration when deciding with my fiancée whether she would come out to support me for the Games.

As for the differing impacts on athletes compared to local residents, I read about one possible effect of widespread use of insect repellent and spraying whole parts of the city with insecticide. The mosquitoes could develop a resistance and then, once the Olympic party has departed, the residents will be left with virus-carrying mosquitoes that are even harder to defend against. This sounds plausible, but I can’t say this is something I know a lot about.

If you could wave a magic wand and instantly change three things about the Olympic Games, what would these changes be?

The first thing would be to choose a sustainable way for the Games to be hosted. I like the idea of a permanent location, perhaps on an “Olympic” island in the Games’ traditional homeland of Greece. That would circumnavigate the need to build anew the necessary vast infrastructure every four years, avoiding the largest cost factor to any host nation. This idea would also solve some connected issues surrounding displacement of local residents, the militarization of the host society and the flow of huge amounts of public money into relatively few private hands.

Alternatively, I think there could also be potential in the idea of rotating the Games amongst a small number of cities around the world that already have the necessary infrastructure and have in place acceptable human-rights laws and high socioeconomic standards.
 Both these plans would also eliminate the need for a long, costly, and potentially corrupt bidding process.Then, I would use my wand to ensure that the merest hint of corruption within the IOC is snuffed out once and for all. Please don’t ask me the details of how this could be achieved, I’m using a magic wand so that I don’t have to take on the task in reality.

Thirdly, I would make sure that any and all sponsors are truly aligned with the values of Olympism.

What do your Olympic colleagues think about your outspokenness? Are you concerned about being silenced?

The feedback I have had from my teammates and our support staff has been very encouraging. Everyone I speak to has their own individual take on the issues, but are very willing to engage in debate, at least with me. There was, however, an interesting response from people when my article in The Guardian was published. People were unanimously supportive, but many were also concerned on my behalf that I might get into trouble for speaking my mind like that. This reaction was evident even alongside the admission that the arguments I put forth were reasonable and well-thought out. It seems poignantly indicative of the current status quo that people expected some kind of backlash from ‘the authorities’ for an athlete putting forward a rational, considered opinion. This, to me, is evidence of a kind of soft barrier in the way of athletes speaking up for what they are passionate about.

As for being silenced, I have been in close contact with my own federation, British Fencing, as well as the British Olympic Association, so that they wouldn’t think I was trying to ambush them. My primary goal is to ignite a discussion amongst athletes on the topic of a sustainable Olympics, not to cause as much of a stir as possible. My discussions with them have been forthright and encouraging, so in that respect I am not too concerned about being silenced. However, If I was actively pursuing a more controversial topic then I dare say I might feel differently. In this sense, I think that retired athletes are the far greater potential source of outspokenness, since they generally have less on the line than active competitors.

What do you have to say to critics who say that athletes should be seen and not heard?

I think there are two answers to this question. In the most part, the issues that I am trying to flag up refer specifically to the way the current Olympic Games are designed and organized. As an Olympian, I feel very strongly that this is an area where not only do I have a right to speak up, but even a responsibility to do so. This is my area, my back yard, so to speak. I think if someone has a problem with the authenticity of me arguing these points, then I would feel that they are missing way too many points to be worth responding to.

The second aspect refers to that type of dismissive response to sportspeople who want to use their elevated platform from which to speak out on broader, non­-sports topics where perhaps they don’t have such a clearly defined authority. In this respect, I would argue that a sportsperson should not be slammed with the “shut up and play” remark in just the same way that no person within a democratic society should be silenced with such an out-of-hand dismissal. A significant difference arises though, between an athlete and the person on the street, in that the athlete often occupies a position of role model either in the community of their chosen sport or in some cases in wider society. As such there is greater potential impact from their behavior and they have an enhanced responsibility to be a positive and considerate example to others. This leads on to another belief of mine—that there is incredible, untapped potential in the form of sports stars’ exemplifying the kinds of social and environmental concern that the world really needs from its citizens right now.

Which politically outspoken athletes do you look to as historical guideposts—or perhaps even inspirations—as you prepare for the Rio 2016 Games?

As I have delved further into the controversial turf surrounding the Olympic Games, I have come to learn about some truly inspiring cases of sportspeople speaking out. Of course John Carlos and Tommie Smith come up at the top of any search for politically motivated athletes, and they certainly suffered for their courageous act of defiance. The tennis world has had more than its fair share of outspoken and characterful athletes, with Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King as two of the best examples.

And when talking about athletes speaking up for what they believe in and facing potential public wrath, there is no greater exemplar than Muhammad Ali.

But aside from these heroes of recent history, I find almost equal inspiration when I hear of any athlete stepping out of the brand-focused mold and saying something real and meaningful, however small. I loved hearing of Tom Brady’s open damnation of Coca-Cola and Frosted Flakes as poison for our kids. We are so used to sporting icons being paid by these kinds of companies to speak on their behalf that Brady’s decision to take it on himself to speak out against them felt like a refreshing, vitalizing splash of truth in a sea of disingenuousness. This is precisely the way that I think sports stars can exemplify some of the changes we most need to see in the world.

I was also particularly heartened to read about the group of Winter Olympians, led by US skier Andy Newell, who signed an open letter to world leaders, rallying against climate change.

You have created a discussion forum for British Olympians. Please tell us about this and what you envision as next steps for the campaign.

When I started out on this course of thinking critically about the Olympic Games and how they impact on different groups, I was most interested in just having dialogue with my teammates and others involved in the Olympic movement. I already knew what it was about the Olympics that I valued most but I needed to find out what was most important to other athletes. For instance, whether there was general agreement with my feeling that athletes would accept a reduced extravagance of Olympic celebration if it meant that the host nation’s population was spared the soaring costs and associated consequences.

So I began by sending out e-mails left, right, and centre. I also had the idea of creating an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), undersigned by British Olympians, supporting the IOC’s own stated goals of creating a more sustainable Olympics. But I came to realize that while there are athlete commissions to represent our views, there was no effective way of communicating directly with other athletes about these kinds of issues or initiatives. It was clear that if something wasn’t officially sanctioned it would take a long time for anything to happen. I felt that in this age of seamless e­-communication, there should be a portal to facilitate athletes creating their own dialogues. I decided that I may as well just create an online discussion forum and try to see if there were other Olympians out there who wanted to engage in this type of discussion. The forum is called Olympians’ Voice.

Considering the aim of this group to get athletes to engage in issues that they felt strongly about also lead me on to another idea. Knowing that the vast majority of Olympians care deeply about the future of the Olympics themselves, I wanted to spark some discussion around that theme in the buildup to Rio, to show the world that there are alternatives. I thought this could work well in the social-media sphere, so I have decided to instigate it around the hashtag #OlympianVision.

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