Silence is golden on gay rights in Sochi

Olympic competition first, gay rights maybe later.
Stefania Berton, right, and Ondrej Hotarek, of Italy, compete in the team pairs free skate competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday in Sochi, Russia.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Stefania Berton, right, and Ondrej Hotarek, of Italy, compete in the team pairs free skate competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics on Saturday in Sochi, Russia.

Categories: News, Sports

Olympic competition first, gay rights maybe later.

Outside the Olympic bubble, the plight of Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community continues to dog the games.

Gay rights activists who waved rainbow flags on Friday on Moscow’s Red Square and protested in St. Petersburg were quickly arrested. Three sponsors of the U.S. Olympic Committee, led by telecommunications giant AT&T, have spoken explicitly against the Russian law. Google Inc. hinted its opposition by putting winter athletes and rainbow colors on its search-page logo.

But in Sochi, largely silence.

Olympians and coaches cite multiple reasons why they feel these Olympics are neither the place nor time — at least not early on in the 17-day games — to make a stand.

Not unreasonably, priority No. 1 is to compete. Everything else is on hold.

“We’re all so focused on the task at hand,” said U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner.

In the United States, Wagner spoke eloquently against the Russian law. In Sochi, she still is happily and patiently answering questions on it. She said she has also “discussed it with some athletes.”

“We have a great platform to really speak out about what we believe in, but also, we’re here to compete,” she said. “I did my part as an athlete, and did enough to make myself feel good at the end of the day.”

Once athletes are done competing, gloves could come off, especially if these are their last Olympics. That, at least, is the theory of LGBT activist Hudson Taylor, a wrestling coach at Columbia University who has traveled to Sochi to campaign. Taylor said he knows of “a handful of athletes who are interested in speaking out.”

The mantra of the International Olympic Committee and many Olympians is that the games must be kept free of the political, religious and other schisms that divide the outside world. That philosophy discourages open discussion at the Olympics of any contentious, non-sport issue, not just the anti-gay chill in Russia.

“I don’t really feel like the Olympics is a place for that kind of politics,” said U.S. skier Bode Miller, competing at his fifth games. “It’s a place for sports and a place for cultures to kind of put aside their differences and compete.

IOC rules governing what athletes can and cannot say aren’t as clear as they could be. Laid out in the Olympic Charter, the rules say all demonstrations and propaganda are banned at Olympic sites, venues and “other areas.”

The charter says violators can be expelled, but that has “seldom if ever” happened, the IOC says. U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home for their “black power” salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games, when they thrust their black-gloved fists skyward on the medal podium.

In Sochi, the IOC and Russian organizers also sent conflicting signals. IOC President Thomas Bach said Olympians are “absolutely free” to speak on gay rights in press conferences. Sochi organizers contradicted Bach, but then backpedaled.

The result: confusion.

“At first, we were like kind of afraid to speak about it, like you couldn’t even say the word ‘gay’ at all,” said U.S. speedskater Jilleanne Rookard.

Some athletes worry taking a strong stand will draw swarms of reporters, which could break their focus.

“I just don’t want to stir the waters and don’t want to comment on any side of it. That’s something that can turn into a distraction if you get hounded by the media,” said cross-country skier Jessica Diggins. “So I’m keeping myself out of that.”

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