Two days after an American became the first athlete to speak out against Russia’s new anti-gay law at the track and field World Championships in Moscow, the United States Olympic Committee staked out its position on the law. Instead of offering support for gay athletes, though, the head of the USOC said that athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi should “comply” with the Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”
“The athletes are always going into countries with laws different than his or her own country. They’re going to agree with those laws in some ways, they’re going to disagree with those laws in other ways,” USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun told Russia’s R-Sport. “It’s our strong desire that our athletes comply with the laws of every nation that we visit. This law is no different.”
American runner Nick Symmonds made headlines this week when he dedicated the silver medal he won in Moscow to his LGBT friends. It was the first major show of support for LGBT athletes at a Russian sporting event and has since been followed by track athletes from Sweden and other countries. But Blackmun couldn’t even muster a comment supporting Symmonds.
“I know he feels strongly about this issue as many Americans do, beyond that we really don’t have any comments,” Blackmun said. “We encourage our athletes to work within Russian law, and I know Nick is trying to do that as well.”
The USOC could have been a leader in the efforts to combat the Russian law and its enforcement during the Games, especially since it would seem to have an interest in protecting one of its most prominent Winter Olympic athletes: figure skater Johnny Weir, who is openly gay and said last week that he was willing to get arrested for speaking out against the law while in Russia. Instead, the USOC and Blackmun took the easy way out, waiting on the International Olympic Committee to act and saying that the USOC is simply “a sports organization.”
“We’ll leave the diplomacy on the legal issues to the diplomats, and we’re not going to get involved,” Blackmun said, adding that the USOC is still “looking to the IOC for some leadership in this issue.”
The IOC, however, has been woefully inept in dealing with Russia. After failing to speak up as the legislation proceeded through the Russian government, it now says it has “assurances” from top Russian officials that the law won’t be enforced on athletes, fans, or media during the Games. Russian authorities, however, have offered mixed signals, with many saying that the law will be in effect and enforced during the Olympics, which start in February. Amid its inaction, the IOC suggested this week that any athletes who express opposition to the law during the Games could face punishment.
President Obama condemned the law last week, saying that while he didn’t support a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, he had “no patience” for homophobic laws and that he was “looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze.” If Russia’s Olympic team “doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, it’ll probably make their team weaker,” Obama added.
The USOC clarified its position on the law today when spokesperson Patrick Sandusky tweeted that it asks “athletes to respect the laws of the host country, for their safety” at every Olympics. “Doesn’t mean we endorse the law…it’s inconsistent w fundamental Olympic principles and we have shared our view w IOC,” he added.
Blackmun told athletes he didn’t support the law in an email, BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner reports:
We strongly support equal rights for all and believe that laws restricting the right to act and speak in support of the LGBT community are inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. We have shared our views with the IOC. At the same time, however, we cannot forget that we are first and foremost a sports organization. Our mission is to help enable American athletes to win medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Our overriding obligation is to deliver a well-prepared team and to support our athletes, all of them. That is where we will direct our energies.