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Sochi 2014

Mums the word – No talk of gay rights in Sochi, please… we’re Olympians

Saturday, February 8, 2014
Sergei Grits, APBritain's James Woods takes a jump during ski slopestyle training at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

Sergei Grits, AP
Britain’s James Woods takes a jump during ski slopestyle training at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

SOCHI, Russia — Olympic competition first, gay rights maybe later.

Plenty of athletes made clear before traveling to Sochi how unhappy they were about gay rights being curtailed in Russia, particularly with its law banning gay “propaganda.” But now in Sochi, there has not been a squeak of public protest from the 2,870 Olympians – either at venues or at Friday’s opening ceremony.

Outside the Olympic bubble, the plight of Russia’s LGBT 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.

Competition first

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.”

Skating coach Brian Orser, who is gay, said: “I’ve avoided most of these questions about it. I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite but I also just want to be here for my athletes, just be here doing my job.”

“I have my feelings about it, but I don’t know if this is the time or the place to voice it, although we do have a big audience, and that’s sort of important as well,” he said. “So I am kind of torn.”

Maybe Later

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.”

“I could see people feeling a little bit more comfortable, after they have gotten their main job out of the way, to speak their mind,” said Wagner.

Not the place

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 contentions 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.”

“It’s easy to get caught up in all the other stuff and forget what the Olympics is about.”

Behind the scenes

Some athletes say they are talking, but among themselves.

“We’ve been discussing this a lot, and it really just brings us athletes closer together. We all agree that there should be no discrimination,” said U.S. cross-country skier Kikkan Randall.

But esteemed figure skating coach Frank Carroll said: “I haven’t heard one single word about it. Not one. I don’t see any flags or banners.”

Keep quiet

Some countries say they just don’t want their athletes involved. Canada is one of those.

“We don ‘t participate in any political debates and any controversy and anything else but sport,” said Canadian Olympic Committee President Marcel Aubut.

Canadian Olympians get “a lot of training” on how to answer reporters and are made “aware of any trigger points,” said Mike Slipchuk, who heads Canada’s figure skating team.

“They’re here to answer questions about their performance and what they’re doing here,” he said.

But on gay rights, “wars” and “everything,” he said: “We’re not here to be a spokesperson for those things.”

Canadian skater Kevin Reynolds certainly got the message.

“I’m focused on doing my job and, for the time being, doing what I need to do,” he said somewhat robotically when asked for his opinion.

With a curt “thanks,” a Canadian press handler tried to cut off a follow-up question before allowing Reynolds to reply.

“I think the athletes will be a little bit more free to talk about that after they have done competing,” t he skater said.

Afraid of trouble

IOC rules governing what athletes can and cannot say aren’t as clear as they could be. Laid out in the Olympic Charter, they 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 backpedalled.

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 Rooka rd.

Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, argues that the IOC’s ban doesn’t extend to social media. He expects athletes in Sochi will be “tweeting or sharing pictures about these issues, too.”

Media storm

MEDIA STORM: Some athletes worry that 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. Then 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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48 more reader comments:

  1. soooooooo theres no gay olympians?

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:48pm
  2. that's the plan; there are "no" gay olympians

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:49pm
  3. hmmmm.... suspect

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:50pm
  4. probably more over they don’t want arrested and thrown in a Russian jail for speaking about it.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:49pm
  5. that would be very unlikely unless they did something really outrageous. Wouldn't be worth it to them. In theory.

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:06pm
  6. Easy for them to say, they aren’t the ones being tortured!!! Much easier to turn the other cheek isn’t it ……

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:50pm
  7. If that’s the case, then you athletes should not be there. It is against the spirit of the Olympic credo!

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:51pm
  8. Leave them alone. The Olympics is not your political soap box. I agree what Russia is doing is very wrong but potentially ruining this even for people who have trained for years is not the right way to fight.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:51pm
  9. You're wrong!! Letting this continue is what's wrong!! Russia openly hates gays, goes out of their way to murder and torcher stray dogs and cats for the sake of the games and also kidnaps dolphins and orcas to put on display but as long as we turn the other cheek and watch it for what it is, I suppose it's ok. After all, the athletes are more important then the message the games are supposed to represent, right?!?! Sit down and STFU because it's a mentality like yours that has put this planet in the shit hole that it is today!!! When is the right time to fight back?!?! Why don't you let the world know, genius!!

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:01pm
  10. I agree. Make your point before the games and then leave the actual Olympics to sport. I'm all for letting people know where you stand, but this is turning into "sticking it to Russia because they are homophobic" instead of appreciating all the hard work all the athletes put into their sport!

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:03pm
  11. Yes, let the games continue... without politics and religion...

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:05pm
  12. Dani, any arena is the right one for anyones rights...human rights are human rights...Lindsay where do you think you would be today if Martin Luther King felt this way or Nelson Mandela, you got your rights we want ours at what ever the cost.

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:07pm
  13. this was going on long before the olympics. so your statement is invalid. plus, if THEY want to risk their lives going there with all the other threats going on, don't want to hear about it if something happens while they are there.

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:12pm
  14. All about the Benjamins, baby!

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:51pm
  15. Dani Rae, shhh lol

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:52pm
  16. Just like we were silent about the Germans? Yeah, because that worked out SOOOO well…

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:52pm
  17. I LOVED to see Jonny Weir there, announcing on the skating. This has nothing to do with Putin or Russia or their stupid prejudice, these are people have trained their whole lives for this moment. I thought it was an excellent choice to RISE ABOVE and SHINE!

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:52pm
  18. you are closed minded...human rights are for athletes too

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:08pm
  19. Medals and profits before people: how Olympian!

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:11pm
  20. Apparently I also owe you an apology, Charles Ford. I had no idea I was being so offensive. I was just thinking of the people and the lifetime they spent trying to become an Olympian, and wishing them the best. Never wanted to offend.

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:25pm
  21. Just keep quite? Nah Fk that.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:53pm
  22. They shouldve boycotted. No self respect.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:56pm
  23. Alex Rosales. No

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:56pm
  24. you are a reason there is still hate in this country towards gays

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:11pm
  25. You know what? All of you guys train for your entire life for en event and then give it up. Then tell me that is what they should’ve done. If you haven’t done that you have no room to speak

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:57pm
  26. Nobody is being silent but for this important event, yes they are setting things aside and living out the dreams they all have had since they were children. You people will just have to deal with it. What are you doing to take the fight to Russia? Arguing on Facebook? I’m sure that makes a world of difference.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:58pm
  27. Well Dani if you are a lesbian, I am glad I am not...human rights should be dealt with all the time...

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:10pm
  28. Once these athletes have concluded their performances, they should speak their minds. The IOC does not have the right to censor speech about equality, no matter what they claim.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 5:59pm
  29. Boycotting the telecast and products and still wishing Team US success!

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:00pm
  30. Oh. People haven’t been quiet. You see how much rainbow colors you’ve seen at the Games? Heard about what Greece did? There are protests. People are using more than words, which most don’t listen to and can argue against anyway. I love the support that I’m seeing, not hearing.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:01pm
  31. “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” —Olympic Charter

    So tell me more about how this isn’t the time or place. WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION OF ANY KIND.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:02pm
  32. COWARDS!!!! They hate you and what you represent and you surrender. What a bunch of cowards we sent over.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:03pm
  33. What we allow is what will continue.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:04pm
  34. Delatorre you shit down and shit the eff up. You’re rude. Crass. And do not sound very intelligent if you have to stoop to insulting a person you know nothing about to raise a point. The unity that was and is displayed between the athletes last night and that will continue through the games is the reason they exist . That’s where the fight begins. Maybe the Russian team meeting amazing gay athletes will have a change of heart. Maybe Russians seeing amazing gay athletes on TV will help. You never know and the fight isn’t dead just because we appreciate and respect the spirit of the games . Yes I agree the games should have been held elsewhere but the only other option was to cancel and that would have devastated 3000 athletes. So please tell me should they all have just dropped out? Would that have fostered a working relationship between Russia and the rest of the world? No. It would have made matters worse, genius.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:05pm
  35. awwww I'm rude and crass!! wake up sunshine!! the world is a disturbing place and we don't need sissy ass mentalities like yours!! We need soldiers and people with guts to speak up and if needed fight for what's right. I can see you won't be one of those people. It's easy to single out the cowards ;) You call me rude. You call me crass. You call me unintelligent. I call myself someone who isn't taking shit anymore from anyone or anything. As a HUMAN, I have the right to do what I want when I want how I want and with who I want while screaming it at the top of my lungs to everyone listening!! FYI, I'm not gay but my sister is and I'm tired of the BS the world throws at her!!

    Replied on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:13pm
  36. Honestly, I don’t begrudge them that.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:06pm
  37. Sports… the focus of the Games…

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:08pm
  38. Barry I’m gay so there is no you and we here. However no one is being stifled at the games. No one was imprissoned or shot for wearing rainbow gloves or outfits. Gays were allowed to compete. Russia is the battleground not the games . The athletes obviously agree with me since they want to focus on the thing they love and hold dear.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:09pm
  39. Well Barry I’m glad you aren’t a lesbian either. The fight didn’t stop just because of the games. It’s still happening . Just not at the games . The games is peaceful and for the athletes. You think the protesters have stopped in the us and Russia alike? No. So you’re point makes no sense. Oh I’m the reason? Because I want a peaceful Olympics? Cool. That logic makes perfect sense. How can I possibly live with myself holding the responsibility for gay hate squarely on my shoulders

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:12pm
  40. *are and your

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:12pm
  41. Ok ID when you make a difference with that me me me instead of us attitude please, let me know ^_^ till then….

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:14pm
  42. Bad Tatics, in an Empending Genocide!

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:14pm
  43. That’s the first time I’ve ever been accused of being close minded, a new one for me! When I get on these threads and try to be positive in any way, I get hated on. Lesson learned. I’ll keep it to myself. I apologize if I offended you in any way Barry Tedesco. That wasn’t my intention at all.
    I do believe deeply in human rights.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:18pm
  44. olympian does not mean what it used to.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:24pm
  45. Jill don’t apologize for speaking up for what you believe. That’s your human right . We can still fight for human rights while upholding the spirit of the Olympics on our end no matter what anyone else does

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:24pm
  46. No talk from hateful bigots, please…..your nauseating.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:28pm
  47. Human rights should trump a sporting event period.

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:30pm
  48. You guys are missing the point

    Posted on Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 6:31pm