As athletes the world over prepare for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia is on its way to passing legislation that would ban “gay propaganda”—a law that could put the peace of mind and even safety of gay Olympians into jeopardy.
“I don’t want to have to tone myself down about who I am,” New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup (right) tells USA Today. “That wasn’t very fun and there’s no way I’m going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble.”
Out figure skater Johnny Weir is hoping to compete in his third Olympics at Sochi. He also hopes his celebrity can help draw attention to the plight of the LGBT community in Russia:
“I love Russia and there is nothing that will change that,” Weir said. “I’m a true patriot and spokesperson for their country. It’s appalling they can censor their public, but I try to do everything I can. I have been in talks with different LBGT organizations in Russia with how I can help.”
“…My advice [to gay Olympians] would be: Watch what you do when you leave the Village, don’t be aggressive, don’t wear a big rainbow flag fur coat. If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.”
It’s not clear if Olympians will be subject to the same scrutiny as Russian citizens, but you can bet there won’t be a Pride House at the Sochi Games, as there had been in London and Vancouver games. The Russian Ministry of Justice already nixed that idea.
If it sounds like Skjellerup and Weir are being a little too soft in their criticism, its worth remembering Olympic competitors (even ones as outspoken as Weir), tend to avoid outright activism. They’re intently focused on competition, and dependent on good will and sponsorship dollars to get them to the Games.
But LGBT advocates are vocal in their disappointment that the International Olympic Committee hasn’t taken a stand on the issue:
“The IOC is very happy to claim victories when good things happen and say that they are not involved when bad things happen,” said Marc Naimark of the Federation of Gay Games.
“There’s a great history with the reaction of worldwide sport to apartheid with the exclusion of South Africa from international sport, and that’s something the IOC should be very proud of. But they don’t seem interested in repeating it when it comes to countries that discriminate against women or gays and lesbians. When they choose a country that’s homophobic, they send a message to the world and to gay athletes, among those messages is, ‘if you’re not out, stay in the closet.’”
The issue won’t fade away after the Soshi Games, either: Russia will host the World Cup in 2018, followed in 2022 by Qatar, where homosexuality is punishable by up to five years in prison.