(CNN)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.
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.
“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
in an interview with CNN in December.
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 it 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.”
‘Freedom of speech’
Another veteran athlete to have spoken out is NBA legend LeBron James, who has traded a number of verbal blows recently with President Trump.
In one exchange, 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.”
In retaliation, the president tweeted: “Lebron (sic) James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do.”
As one of the world’s biggest stars, Tiger Woods’ views are often sought on politics, race and society, but the former world No.1 golfer is notoriously reticent to offer comment. Woods has played golf with President Trump a number of times, but whenever he is asked if that should be seen as an endorsement he offers a stock response.
“He’s the President of the United States. You have to respect the office,” Woods said in August. “No matter who is in the office, you may like, dislike personality or the politics, but we all must respect the office.”
Another golfer Rory McIlroy received abuse — including being called a “fascist” and a “bigot” — for
in February. He said at the time it “wasn’t an endorsement nor a political statement of any kind,” but later admitted he would “think twice” about doing it again given the
US freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy recently questioned why athletes and celebrities received abuse for sharing their views.
The 2014 Olympic slopestyle silver medalist wrote on Twitter: “If you think celebs should ‘stick to____’ and not be allowed to voice their political opinions that’s fine but then don’t even think about discussing sporting events, TV shows/movies, music, etc. because you aren’t a professional athlete, actor, or recording artist…”
‘Striving for peace but preaching hate’
Unlike established names such as Vonn, James or Woods, Shiffrin is still transitioning from prolific teen prodigy coached by her Mom to independent global star who transcends her sport.
She recently appeared in the Maxim Hot 100 list, modestly wearing a ski jacket with her Olympic gold and silver medals from South Korea around her neck, and is cultivating a large following on social media.
However, she remains wary about straying into unknown territory.
“The thing I’m uncomfortable about in politics or with the elections is I know enough about what I don’t want, but I don’t know enough about what I do want,” she added.
“I guess this is the issue with people these days is that if you’re not educated enough, you still have an opinion, everybody has an opinion and everybody is really quick to force their opinion on someone else.
“Everybody’s striving for peace, but everybody’s just preaching hate all the time, so if that could change that would be great.
“But I don’t feel educated enough to say, ‘This is what I want. I only know that what we’ve seen lately isn’t great, so it’s an awkward position to be in at 23 and feeling like, ‘I’m supposed to know.'”
Shiffrin says she would hate the “pressure” of being in political office — “I have enough pressure trying to win World Cup races” — and admits “I don’t have the answers.”
“I believe every single one of our presidents has genuinely wanted the best and wanted to fix problems and they just have their own way of going about it and you’re never going to make everyone happy,” she says.
“No one’s ever going to agree with you 100% but then there are also signs that maybe it’s not right job for you.”
Ultimately, Shiffrin has a simple wish: “If everybody were to be kind to one another, have your opinions but don’t force that on others as fact, trust science, that’s pretty much it. I don’t think it has to be that much more difficult.”