The Olympic Channel, an initiative of the International Olympic Committee, launched "Identify," a new documentary series in late June, which follows five transgender athletes: Chloe Anderson (volleyball), Schuyler Bailar (swimming), Harrison Browne (hockey), Pat Manuel (boxing), and Chris Mosier (triathlon/duathlon). "Identify" profiles each one of the athletes in five separate episodes as they make their marks in the sports world.
The series, which was produced in partnership with Vice Media, was created to showcase world-class athletes who are transgender and determined to compete at the highest levels. By highlighting their real-life experiences, the creators hope the series encourages others within the LGBTQ community to live an authentic life and pursue their passions.
We caught up with Greg Groggel, the director of original programming for the Olympic Channel, to discuss the series.
espnW: How did this project come about?
Greg Groggel: Part of our challenge [at the Olympic Channel] is to be a relevant destination, so for us, it was like "What are some of the topics people are talking about in a broader sense and how can we be at the forefront of those?" Vice was creating content for us exclusively, and they pitched a bunch of ideas. They were fine, but I called them up and said: "Guys, I would love for you to do a transgender series." The reason we brought it to Vice is that they know these communities so well, and if we worked with someone else to tell these stories, it's not quite as natural of a fit. Hopefully what you see is that they tell them with such care.
espnW: Why did you gravitate toward the subject matter of transgender athletes?
GG: From a sports perspective, the subject is neglected, frankly. The athletes have been profiled on a national level and by some big outlets, don't get me wrong, but what makes this interesting is the collective vision. We're not profiling one athlete here and one athlete there. Seeing the similarities and the differences between their personal stories is really compelling. You get a more holistic picture of what the trans community is facing, particularly in sports.
We wanted to do the series on a global scale, but we couldn't find stories. It was really interesting. I really pushed Vice to find current athletes. We wanted young voices and people who are competing at the highest levels of sport. We didn't want to tell their stories after the fact. This wasn't about Caitlyn Jenner. It was really eye-opening that we couldn't find those athletes on an international level.
Globally, we're really not there yet.
espnW: Thematically, what are you hoping to convey through this collective storytelling?
GG: I think there are misconceptions about trans athletes. For the casual sports fan, the place they go to is "Is it fair?" or "Are these athletes trying to cheat?" And they are missing the point entirely. The main thing was showing a very human side to transgender athletes. Pat Manuel is a great example. He was one of the best women boxers in the nation, and then made the decision to leave the sport for two years to transition and move into the male category. He did this in a sport that requires some of the most quickness, power and brute force. Pat wasn't doing that because it was easy. These athletes aren't doing this to get ahead. They're only doing it to be their true selves. When you see these portraits, you really come to understand them. You want to root for Pat. If we're able to achieve that outcome with viewers, that's ideal.
espnW: How was the title chosen?
GG: We talked a lot about this with the Vice team and with the athletes. Early on the idea was to use transgender in the title. It was a learning process to hear what the athletes thought and understand how much weight was put on these labels. It's not for me to put a label on Harrison [Browne] and Pat.
Eventually, we landed on "Identify" as a verb. Each person should have the power to identify how they want to and they should be able to do so within sports. I just think it's more powerful. It places the power into the athletes' hands, which is empowering.
Episodes of "Identify" can be seen on olympicchannel.com and the Olympic Channel mobile app.