She’s one of the most prominent sports stars in the United States, but skier Mikaela Shiffrin admits the “toxic” political climate makes her “scared” to air her views.
The two-time Olympic champion is aware her growing fame means she will be questioned on a range of issues, but the 23-year-old is wary after seeing other athletes face a backlash for making a stand.
Shiffrin, a three-time world champion, watched as US skiing teammate Lindsey Vonn receive online abuse last year after saying she would be representing her country, not its president, at last February’s Winter Olympics and would snub a visit to the White House if invited after the Games.
With the United States deeply divided ahead of the midterm elections, Shiffrin admits she isn’t ready to make her thoughts public, particularly in the social media age.
“If the whole political climate wasn’t as toxic then maybe it would be more attractive, maybe it would be easier for me to be proud of voting and be able to say, ‘Yeah, I voted for this person and here’s why,’ and not feel like I’m going to get totally hammered for that,” Shiffrin told CNN’s Alpine Edge in a wide-ranging interview ahead of the alpine ski racing season-opener in Soelden, Austria last month.
“I don’t know if that’s something that eventually maybe I’ll grow up enough to not be scared of that anymore, but at this point, I’m not quite there.”
One of the most high-profile examples of athletes making a stand in recent years was the anthem protest by Colin Kaepernick and other NFL stars. What began as an outcry against social and racial injustice turned into a political row about patriotism.
US President Donald Trump described the NFL protesters as “sons of bitches,” while quarterback Kaepernick is still without an NFL contract after leaving the San Francisco 49ers in March 2017.
NBA legend LeBron James told CNN’s Don Lemon that President Trump was “using sports to kinda divide us … Sports has never been something that divides people. It’s always been something that brings someone together.”
“A lot of athletes have spoken out or have made a stand, and whether it’s supposed to be about politics or not it seems like it always ends up being about politics,” added Shiffrin, who is targeting a third straight World Cup overall skiing title this season.
“And that has ruined careers, you know. Even with teammates speaking about politics and getting a ton of backlash for it, and I watch and I think, ‘They stated their opinion, sorry.’ But that’s something I’m not prepared to deal with right now. If I’m not absolutely sure I don’t want to force that on other people.”
Vonn, one of the most successful ski racers of all time, faced a barrage of online abuse after voicing her views on Trump in an interview with CNN in December.
In a lengthy Instagram post afterward, she added: “My recent comments opened up my eyes as to how divided we are right now.
“It is hurtful to read comments where people are hoping I break my neck or that God is punishing me for being ‘anti-Trump.'”
U.S. Ski & Snowboard told CNN it “fundamentally supports our athletes’ first amendment right to freedom of speech.”
The body says it supports its athletes to make sure their thoughts are “articulated clearly and fairly,” but added, “they are their own people and we want them to express themselves.”