February 9

In Sochi, athletes mum on gay rights

Not a squeak of protest is heard – yet – from 2,870 Olympians as they place their focus on competing.

By John Leicester
The Associated Press

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

click image to enlarge

Ashley Wagner of the United States skates at the figure stating practice rink Wednesday ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. In the United States, Wagner spoke eloquently against the Russian law. In Sochi, she still is answering questions on it but isn't making it a priority.

The Associated Press

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 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.

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.”

(Continued on page 2)

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