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Interview: 'Politics Are Always Going To Be Tied To Sports,' U.S. Athlete Says

Nick Symmonds celebrates on the podium after winning the silver medal in the men's 800-meter final at the 14th IAAF World Championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on August 15.
Nick Symmonds celebrates on the podium after winning the silver medal in the men's 800-meter final at the 14th IAAF World Championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on August 15.
U.S. runner Nick Symmonds made headlines last summer when he used a medal-winning performance at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow to publicly denounce Russia's law prohibiting "gay propaganda."

Symmonds, who is straight, told a Russian news agency he disagreed with the law and that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people deserved equal rights.

Now Symmonds says he's looking forward to his winter-sport colleagues "testing the boundaries" of the Russian law as they compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics beginning February 7. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar spoke to Symmonds about the fine line between politics and sports.

RFE/RL: You've become one of the most outspoken American athletes on the issue of LGBT rights. When did you first become interested in political issues?

Nick Symmonds:
My parents always encouraged me to speak my mind and ask questions. As I became an athlete, I was pretty much focused on doing my job, and that was to run fast and win races.

But in the back of my mind, I was always thinking that I wished I could make running around in circles mean more. I wasn't necessarily trying to be politically active, but when gay marriage became such a huge thing in America, I felt like the thing that irked me the most was the fact that our government would deny people the rights that they afforded to others. So I spoke out on that.

RFE/RL: Before the World Championships in August 2013, you said that you were intending to keep your views to yourself while in Moscow. But that changed after you won the silver medal in the 800-meter race. Why did you change your mind?

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Symmonds: I met with some members of the LGBT community [in Russia], and many of them said that they were treated more poorly now than they were when they were living under Soviet rule. That was just shocking to hear. I just felt I had to say something.

So once I had taken care of my job and had a silver medal around my neck, I dedicated that medal to the LGBT community, and it actually got a lot of attention. I didn't expect it to, but it did, because apparently I was one of the first athletes on Russian soil to speak out against those crazy laws that they'd passed.

RFE/RL: Have your coaches ever discouraged you from speaking out?

My coaches hadn't set many rules for me. They just reminded me of how much work we had all put in together and how important this event was. They encourage [all Team USA athletes] to also focus on the job and the task at hand, and not necessarily to ruffle too many feathers, and to be respectful.

I felt that I was treading that fine line of being respectful but also speaking my mind. I personally feel that I in no way violated the law, but as we've all come to find out, it's a very ambiguously written law, and no one really knows what can land you in jail and what can't.

RFE/RL: What are you hoping to see from the Winter Olympic athletes, in terms of political gestures?

There's something about the Winter Olympics, the type of athletes that are drawn to those sports, whether it's snowboarding or slalom skiing. They like to live life to the fullest, they love a good adrenalin rush, and I just really see them pushing the envelope when it comes to testing the boundary of this law. I'm very excited to see the political theater play out.

I would encourage the athletes that are out there to focus on their job, which is to win medals. But if they want to speak out, I hope to see them do it in a tasteful manner. I was always thinking that if they all came together and did something as a group, their voice would be so much louder. And maybe that's something as simple as wearing a small rainbow flag or painting their nails in rainbow colors, or something small like that. I do think it's going to be interesting to watch what they come up with.

WATCH: Activists rallied in New York on February 5 to call on sponsors of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi to speak out against Russian antigay legislation. The event was organized by gay-rights group All Out and took place simultaneously in some 20 cities around the world.
Gay-Rights Activists Call For Action From Olympics Sponsors
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RFE/RL: You're a member of the Principle 6 campaign, which refers to the article of the Olympic Charter that says that no form of discrimination will be tolerated by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The IOC has come under criticism for failing to take a strong stance against Russia's antigay laws. As an athlete, are you disappointed by the IOC's position?

The IOC has a tough job. They gave the games to Sochi before the laws were passed, so in that sense, they're kind of in between a rock and a hard place. I think that they need to see how Sochi responds to the way the athletes comport themselves during the games.

I don't know that the IOC necessarily has a job to force a government to change their laws, but it certainly has the responsibility to make sure that all of the Olympians, and all the fans, and everyone involved in the Olympic movement, [are] guaranteed equality.

RFE/RL: You've competed in the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Summer Games, and are now training to qualify for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Will you use it as an opportunity to promote your political views?

Politics are always going to be tied to sports, especially international sports. Were there to be a political issue during an Olympic Games that I was competing at, I would probably take the same position that I took in Russia and that's to try to be respectful to the host nation, to take care of my job -- which, again, is to win medals for the United States. But once my job is done, as far as I'm concerned I'm more or less a tourist and as such would use any power or platform that I had to try to effect some change for good.

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