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Gay Olympian: Let’s Go To Sochi, And Speak Out

Blake Skjellerup, a speedskater from New Zealand, is calling on athletes to go to Sochi and oppose Russia's anti-gay laws

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Blake Skjellerup of New Zealand competes in the Short Track Speed Skating Men's 1,000 m on day 6 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Pacific Coliseum on February 17, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.

Pouring vodka down the drain is one thing. But boycotting the Sochi Olympics because of anti-gay legislation passed by Russian lawmakers? That just hurts the wrong people, says one gay Olympic athlete.

Despite a highly publicized call from playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics because of legislation passed in Russia banning homosexual “propaganda” in the presence of children, Blake Skjellerup, a member of New Zealand’s 2010 Olympic speedskating team, who is currently training in Calgary to qualify for the 2014 Games, wants to keep Olympians focused on winning. “I’m definitely not calling for a boycott of the Games,” says Skjellerup, via a Skype interview.  “I, along with every other athlete who will be there, has worked very, very hard to achieve the Olympic dream. It’s not something you can sign up for. It’s a lifelong commitment. To have that ripped away from you would be extremely devastating.”

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Not that he plans on staying quiet. This week, Skjellerup partnered up with Athlete Ally, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes respect and acceptance of LGBT people, both inside and outside the sports world, and also opposes the boycott. “We’re encouraging people to speak out, rather than sit out,” says Hudson Taylor, Athlete Ally founder and executive director.

From boycotts to the criticisms of China’s human rights record before the Beijing games, the Olympics have always brought attention to the politics and policies of the host country. Athletes themselves are in an uneasy spot. They have a soapbox on which to send a message. But will advocacy drain their focus, and distract them during the most crucial athletic moment of their careers?

For Skjellerup, the decision to speak out was easy. “I believe it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “These laws are in direct conflict with who I am. It all starts with awareness, which is what I bring, what Athlete Ally brings. I believe we will start a conversation, and we’ll let the people of Russia know that they’re not alone. That people are thinking of them. We support them in their human rights endeavors.”

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He’s hoping that athletes from around the world, both gay and straight, will join him. Given recent strides in the gay rights movement, both in America and globally (France, the U.K., and New Zealand have all recently passed laws allowing same-sex marriage), Russia’s policies will face opposition. A Russian court has already blocked plans for Sochi to have a Pride House — a gathering place for gay athletes and fans popular at the Vancouver and London games — calling it “extremist.”

In late June, after Vladimir Putin signed the gay propaganda ban into law, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said that it would not be enforced at the Olympics. But this week, Russian sport minister Vitaly Mutko strongly suggested otherwise. “No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable,” Mutko said. IOC member Richard Carrion said in a statement Friday that, “We should use all the avenues possible for influence and diplomacy with Russian officials, so that this legislation will not create a problem for our athletes.” (Carrion, who is from Puerto Rico, is a candidate to succeed IOC president Jacques Rogge.) The Olympic Charter has “seven fundamental principles of Olympism,” he said. Number 6 states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

“I am sure the IOC is thinking very, very, carefully,” says Skjellerup. “I believe in the Olympic movement. I believe in the IOC, and that during my time in Sochi, my security can be guaranteed. I can compete to my fullest without any distractions from any outside sources … I’m just going to be myself in Sochi. I hope that I’ll be allowed to do that. I don’t think I should get in trouble for being myself.”

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