6:50 PM EDT, October 1, 2013
PARK CITY, Utah – Ashley Wagner was well prepared for the question. During a U.S. Figure Skating training camp in late August, she and other skaters had been told to expect it. The U.S. Olympic Committee told the skaters what its position was, and Wagner could simply have chosen to let the USOC speak for her.
And when the moment came for Wagner to address the question of Russia’s anti-gay legislation before a large audience, she admitted to being nervous.
But the two-time U.S. figure skating champion gave an answer Monday that showed an inner strength and a moral compass that clearly compelled her to speak her mind at the USOC Olympic media summit in Park City.
“I have gay family members and a lot of friends in the LGBT community,” Wagner said. “I have such a firm stance on this. I believe we should all have equal rights, and I also do not support the legislation in Russia.
“At the same time, it is not my place to go into Russia and tell them how to run their country. I believe the best way for you to show your support for the (LGBT community) is to speak out about it.”
Six U.S. figure skaters with hopes of competing at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia all responded to the question during the media summit Monday. While an athlete need not speak out on any issue unless he or she wants to, LGBT issues hit a particular nerve in the figure skating community, which has lost great athletes and coaches to AIDS and includes several champions who have come out.
Three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott also expressed his distaste for the Russian legislation but chose not to elaborate. Reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek stepped behind the USOC. Gracie Gold, Max Aaron and Agnes Zawadzki essentially echoed Lysacek’s position.
Tuesday, the only likely individual U.S. figure skating medalists in Sochi, reigning world champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, also chose not to take a public stand on the anti-gay legislation.
“I don’t think we can speak because we haven’t really talked about between the two of us very much,’’ White said.
“I don’t think the Olympics is really the right place for an athlete to make a political statement,” Davis said.
Asked if this was not a political issue but a human rights issue, White said, “Unfortunately, it’s semantics. To Russia, it is a political statement. And they are the host country. I think that is probably all we will say on the subject.”
Such reluctance makes Wagner’s dignified and rational expressions of dismay seem even stronger.
“If you do have an opinion, it always has repercussions,” Wagner said. “There are people who disagree with you.
“It is very intimidating to speak up at all. It comes with a lot of questions and responsibility. A lot of athletes are not afraid to talk about it but shy away because it is inconvenient to talk about it.”
Abbott expressed exactly those reservations about not wanting to go beyond a simple statement of opposition to the law.
“It is a very polarized issue,” he said. “I think there is no right answer. There is no way to answer this question properly without offending somebody. That’s why we all feel we are walking on eggshells. . .We have to be cautious about what we say.”
Abbott’s position has evolved in the six weeks since he trivialized the matter by comparing speaking out about the issue to criticizing a host’s home decoration.
"I'm not going to go into somebody's house and be like, 'Um, the way you decorate is hideous, and you need to completely redo this or I'm never coming back,’’’ Abbott told the Denver Post in late August. “It's a little rude, so I don't want to say bad things about a country that's hosting the world, essentially.’’
Wagner, 22, trying for her first Olympics, instead realizes she is in a position to increase awareness of the issue in the months leading to the Winter Games and also in Russia, should she make the U.S. team.
“I’m very excited to hopefully go and, while there, I’m going to focus on competing,” she said. “But I do have a platform to speak out about how I feel about the situation. Beyond that, who knows what will happen?”
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits demonstrations and “political, religious or racial propaganda” in Olympic sites or venues. Among potential penalties for violating the charter is being sent home from the Olympics.
Four-time Olympian Bode Miller, the greatest men’s alpine skier in U.S. history and winner of five Olympic medals, took the strongest stand of any athlete to date. Miller said Monday said Russia's anti-gay law showed an intolerance and ignorance that embarrassed him as a human being.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is waiting for International Olympic Committee guidance on the matter, particularly as it relates to demonstration or protest, including the wearing of anything that indicates support for the LGBT community.
“I want to make it very clear we have not asked our athletes not to speak out,” USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said Tuesday. “We want our athletes to be aware of the law and possible consequences.”
Such support could be construed as a violation of the Russian law, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and calls for penalties that include arrest, fine and deportation. Many people feel the law’s limited language is a smokescreen for Russia to discriminate against gays.
The Olympic Charter also prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.” USOC chairman Larry Probst, elected last month as an International Olympic Committee, member said Tuesday he would "absolutely vote yes" to amending the Olympic Charter so sexual orientation would be a specific part of that list.
USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said Monday, “We disagree with the law and do not believe it is reflective of the Olympic spirit and Olympic Charter. Our focus is on preparing our team to compete and ensuring that all our athletes, fans and supporters will be safe in Russia.”
Lysacek, whose chances of getting to the 2014 Olympics diminished with his Monday revelation of a new injury, has chosen not to take an individual stand on the Russian legislation. When I asked him why he was so cautious about speaking out, he said it was important to have everyone on the same page about the issue.
“I have done work with the U.S. State Department as a sports envoy, and one thing I learned from that is the State Department, U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Figure Skating – whoever is making a statement – have thought it out very precisely and cautiously,” he said.
“I know how powerful one voice is to address a political issue. And I know how detrimental clouding that voice with multiple voices can be.”
And why wasn’t he willing to go at least as as far as Wagner did?
“I am willing to stand behind the USOC and let them speak for me,” Lysacek said. “I’m a representative of theirs.”
Wagner said she appreciated the guidance the USOC has given all athletes on the issue.
Then she chose to speak for herself, on behalf of millions.
“I can’t stay quiet,” she said.
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