While Katarina Witt can flaunt her sexuality, many gay athletes hide theirs
Sex sells—to a point
While Katarina Witt can flaunt her sexuality, many gay athletes hide theirs
It was an otherwise routine day at the Prince George, B.C., airport last week when Katarina Witt, the vivacious and curvaceous German figure-skating star, sparked a rush to the newsstand. In Canada to perform with Elvis Stojko’s Canon Tour of Champions, Witt was waiting with other skaters for a flight to Calgary when she was recognized by several passers-by. Little wonder: a decade after winning her last of two Olympic gold medals, the 32-year-old ice princess posed nude for a pictorial in the current December issue of Playboy. Word spread that Witt was in the airport and, within minutes, fans bought every remaining copy of Playboy from the airport shop’s shelves and lined up to have them autographed before she boarded the flight. “It was a bit crazy,” said Elliott Kerr of the Landmark Sports Group, one of the tour’s promoters. “But it has been that way everywhere we go.”
Funny how sex sells. The Elvis Tour has struggled to attract attention and audiences in Canada since it was first launched in 1994, yet this time it’s hot stuff. Although Stojko, the three-time world champion from Newmarket, Ont., has a strong following, it is Witt who is causing the sensation. But in the hypersensitive world of sports marketing, not all sex sells—and that is what worries Brian Orser. Last week, a Toronto court denied a bid by Orser, the 36-year-old Canadian skating star, to ban publication of details from a nasty palimony suit launched by a former live-in lover. Orser has always been discreet about his homosexuality because many sponsors worry about public reaction to products endorsed by openly gay performers. “Brian’s sexuality may not be a problem inside the skating world or in the big cities,” said one agent, “but it is naive to suggest that it isn’t one in the boardrooms.”
So much for the free and open 1990s. Coming out has recently been an asset for actors in TV sitcoms and for stand-up comedians, but the vast majority of gay athletes—particularly in the homophobic sphere of team sports—still feel they have to keep their sexuality private. They fear being ostracized by their peers, and they can’t afford the anticipated loss of earnings from endorsements and corporate appearances. They cite the experience of Martina Navratilova, who in mid-career made public the fact that she was a lesbian. Perhaps the greatest female tennis
player of all time, Navratilova retired in 1994 without a single non-equipment endorsement contract.
Agents take that as a warning, and caution clients against coming out. Orser seemed to agree, stating in his court submission that some skaters had to “guard their gayness closely because of the likely impact of public disclosure on their careers.” But corporate concern isn’t restricted to homosexuality. For some sponsors, overt sexuality of any kind is a no-no. Maclean’s has learned that packaged-foods giant General Mills decided not to sponsor the Elvis show after it learned Witt’s Playboy issue would be on newsstands while the tour was on. Brooks Gekler, senior vicepresident of marketing for the company, would not comment on why the company opted for another skating show, but one tour insider said the company decided breakfast cereals and Playboy didn’t mix. “I
was shocked that they wanted to pull out,” said one tour official, who asked to remain anonymous. “I mean, the pictures are very tasteful.”
That Witt and Orser both made news last week was fitting. They were stars together in the 1980s, lighting up the Calgary Saddledome with spectacular Olympic performances that propelled figure skating to unimagined heights of popularity. Witt, then of East Germany, and Orser, a native of Belleville, Ont., both had style, good looks and grace under the withering pressure of a Winter Games (she won gold, he took silver). After leaving the amateur ranks, they helped develop more mature ice shows and competitions that legitimized professional skating. The subsequent boom in the sport made them rich. Witt has a home in her native Berlin and just sold a lavish apartment in New York City because she spends more time in Los Angeles, pursuing an acting ca-
reer. Orser, meanwhile, has headlined TV specials and tours, competed in pro events and worked as an analyst on skating broadcasts (he also reported for Maclean’s at the 1992 Albertville Games). He owned a home in the posh Toronto neighborhood of Rosedale before moving in 1997 to Ottawa.
Accustomed since her teens to mass attention and adulation, Witt is completely at ease with her latest notoriety. Playboy had made several offers to her before; she says she agreed to pose only after negotiating full artistic control. Early reports estimated that Witt was paid $150,000 for the pictorial, but well-informed sources told Maclean’s that she was guaranteed more than $750,000 and should earn well in excess of $1 million based on a clause that pays her a percentage of brisk newsstand sales. Witt told Maclean’s it was sadly ironic that she is profiting handsomely from her sexuality, while her old friend Orser stands to lose because of his. On top of that, Orser’s ex, Craig Leask, a project manager for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, is demanding $5,000 a month, ownership of Orser’s cottage and half the proceeds from the sale of the Rosedale home. “I feel for Brian because he is such a wonderful person,” Witt said. “Within skating, of course, it is not a big deal, but outside, there is a society that still has problems with people who are gay.”
In another irony, many companies are beginning to aim sales campaigns at the gay community, a demographic group with comparatively high disposable income. Michael Gouinlock, executive vice-president of the Toronto-based sports marketing agency Lang & Associates, says sexuality has nothing to do with targeting those groups. “Both Molson and Labatt sponsored the Gay Pride parade this year in Toronto,” says Gouinlock. ‘Why? Because gays drink beer, too.”
Still, closeted athletes are likely to stay put for the time being. Particularly in amateur sports, competitors cannot afford to lose any of the moneymaking opportunities that come their way. As a result, other gay athletes understand Orser’s bid for a publication ban. “I feel badly for Brian that he had to go to such lengths to protect his privacy— it’s no way to live,” one gay athlete said. “But I think there’s an attitude towards gays that permeates sports, and that’s really sad.” Last week’s legal disclosures may not hurt Orser. Nearing the end of a career in which he won one world championship, two Olympic silver medals and eight Canadian titles, he may actually gain popularity because of the sympathy generated by news that he is being sued. “I believe that the next time Brian skates, he’ll get an even greater ovation than he usually gets,” says Landmark’s Kerr. “There’s a lot of support out there for the guy, and that just enhances his salability.” For Orser, that might be the greatest irony of all. □
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