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As Gay Athletes Prepare To Take A Stand In Sochi, The Question Is How To Do It

Protesters hold a demonstration against Russian antigay legislation and against the Russian president's stand on gay rights in front of the Russian Consulate in New York on July 31.
For one speed skater, making a statement means wearing a rainbow pin as he darts across the ice. For one figure skater, it means just being himself, flamboyant costumes and all, and having his husband there to cheer him on.

Both know they may be arrested under Russia's vaguely defined ban on so-called gay "propaganda."

But the speed skater, New Zealand's Blake Skjellerup, and the figure skater, American Johnny Weir, are defying calls by some activists and athletes to boycott February's Olympic Games in Sochi. They are among the competitors and supporters who say the best place to take a stand against homophobia is at the Games itself.

With just months to go before the Olympic cauldron is lit, the question of how best to show support for gay rights has come to the fore. What will be allowed by the Russian authorities -- and by the International Olympic Committee, itself -- also remains to be seen.

Skjellerup, 28, is the only openly gay athlete who is currently confirmed for participation in Sochi. He plans to wear a rainbow pin, a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, to show his support.

"I was in the closet for far too long and it wasn't a very fun time at all. I'm not going to change the person that I am just for the sake of some rules existing in one country," he told the U.S. news site Huffington Post.

Skjellerup's stance is supported by Russia's most prominent gay-rights activist, Nikolai Alekseyev, who told RFE/RL he was ready to distribute pins from the first Moscow pride parade in 2006 to any interested athletes. The Russian capital has since banned pride parades for 100 years.

Running Afoul Of 'Propaganda' Ban

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the ban on gay "propaganda" in June. The law criminalizes the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.

Individuals who violate the law face fines up to 100,000 rubles (about $3,000), while organizations can be fined up to 1 million rubles (about $30,000). Foreign citizens violating the law must also pay the fines, face automatic deportation, and can be jailed for up to 15 days.

Rights activists in Russia and beyond say the law institutionalizes already rampant homophobic attitudes and condones violence against gays. A spate of attacks, including several killings, has occurred since the law was approved.

For athletes, as well as coaches, trainers, supporters, and journalists coming to Sochi, the most immediate concern is the law's vagueness as to what constitutes "propaganda" -- and the room left for potentially haphazard application. Technically, millions of minors will be watching the Olympics in person or on television.

Could Skjellerup's pin earn him a fine and time in jail?

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat-New York) has urged countries to wave rainbow flags during the opening ceremony and an online petition is calling for Great Britain's team to wear rainbow colors. Could such moves send delegations packing?

Enforcing The Law

At the track-and-field world championships held in Moscow this week, two Swedish athletes competed with their fingernails painted in rainbow colors. U.S. runner Nick Symmonds dedicated his silver medal in the 800-meter race to gay friends.

Russia's world champion pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, described those moves as disrespectful. "We have our law, which everyone has to respect," she said in remarks reported by "The New York Times."

Would similar acts mean fines in Sochi?

There are few precedents to go by. In July, four Dutch citizens shooting a documentary about LGBT communities in Russia were the first foreigners to be detained under the law.

They were fined and deported. Statements by Russian lawmakers and public officials also suggest there is an appetite for broad interpretation of the law, or worse.

A participant at a gay-rights demonstration in Moscow is attacked. Activists say the law institutionalizes already rampant homophobic attitudes and condones violence against gays.
A participant at a gay-rights demonstration in Moscow is attacked. Activists say the law institutionalizes already rampant homophobic attitudes and condones violence against gays.

Dmitry Kiselev, the director of the leading state-run TV channel Rossia 1, said of gays during a recent program: "Their hearts, in case of an automobile accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."

The Russian Interior Ministry says mounting fears are "groundless" and "far-fetched," but that the law will be enforced during the Olympics.

Weir: Presence A Statement

Figure skater Weir, a two-time Olympian and hopeful for Sochi, is known for his feather- and glitter-adorned costumes. An openly gay athlete, Weir is also a self-proclaimed Russophile. He speaks Russian, has a large Russian following, and is married to a Russian-American man.

He told RFE/RL that he did not plan to wear a pin or wave a flag, but said his presence in Sochi was a statement in itself.

U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir says he doesn't need to wear a pin to take a stand.
U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir says he doesn't need to wear a pin to take a stand.
"As far as outward displays, should I be competing in the Olympics, my husband, his entire family, and my entire family will be there as a unit, supporting me -- and I think that that is a beautiful statement to make," he said. "For an immigrant Russian family living in the United States to support their gay son's husband, it's something very modern and something very new, and it's definitely a statement. I don't have to wear a pin to show the LGBT community that I am in support of them and that I'm with them."

But Weir also fears he may not be above punishment, or could be targeted for his social-media presence. A photo posted on the Tumblr account of his husband, Victor Voronov, shows the couple kissing on Red Square.

Where Will IOC Stand?

Adding to the concerns is the murky stance of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While the IOC has publicly condemned discrimination against gays, it has also warned that the Olympics "are not a place for proactive protests or demonstrations."

In an e-mail to RFE/RL, an IOC spokesperson referenced Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states, "No kind of demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

The spokesperson added, "That said, the IOC would always treat each case individually and take a sensible approach."

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It remains to be seen whether any outward display of gay identity or support for gay rights will be considered "political," and therefore unacceptable, by the body. At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two U.S. athletes who gave a "black power" salute on the podium were later stripped of their medals.

Activists and Western officials say they will be watching the IOC closely.

"To be an openly straight person is not a political statement and is not a religious expression. It's simply a person being who they are, fundamentally, as a human being," openly gay U.S. congressman Mark Takano (Democrat-California) told RFE/RL.

"And I would say that's true of people who are openly gay, openly lesbian, openly bisexual, [and] openly transgender. To somehow impute that as political expression, whereas being openly straight is somehow not -- this is an absurdity."

The uncertainty about how both Russia and the IOC will respond to shows of LGBT support has even led to some creative suggestions on Twitter for a "Sochi salute" that will not be punishable. One user suggested that athletes should make an arc shape with their hands to reference the rainbow.

Another Twitter user said that regardless of the actions of either Russia or the IOC, Sochi looks destined to become the "gayest games ever."