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Olympic athletes face questions about Russia's anti-gay law

Liz Clarke,Rick Maese

PARK CITY, Utah -- Roughly four months before the 2014 Sochi Games get underway, many of the country's top winter Olympians began filing into this mountain resort Monday to talk about their medal aspirations.

But in a series of interviews that will conclude Wednesday, many were asked their view of the recently enacted Russian law that bans "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," which stands to overshadow the competition when the Games begin Feb. 7.

Their responses were as varied as the athletes themselves.

Five-time Olympic medalist Bode Miller said the law is "an embarrassment" and called the International Olympic Committee's prohibition on athletes' expressing political views while competing at Olympic sites "hypocritical and unfair."

"I think it's absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and people who are that intolerant and that ignorant," said Miller, 35, the country's most decorated male alpine skier. "But it's not the first time; we've been dealing with human rights issues probably since there were humans."

Agnes Zawadzki, 19, a two-time and defending U.S. bronze medalist in figure skating, deferred to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which in July voiced disapproval of the law but made clear that its role was to prepare American athletes to perform at their best.

"I'm not there to make a difference," Zawadzki said. "I want to focus on myself and what I have to do well to compete well at the Olympics."

Two-time U.S. figuring skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, spoke earnestly, conceding she was nervous discussing the issue given that she was "just an athlete" but was determined to do so as someone with gay family members and many friends in the LGBT community.

"I have gay family members and a lot of friends in the LGBT community," said Wagner, who narrowly missed the 2010 Vancouver Games. "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."

Signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, the law lays out heavy penalties for those deemed to promote homosexuality to anyone under 18. It has been sharply criticized by human rights activists worldwide, some of whom have called for a boycott in response.

Its breadth and ambiguity have raised concern among many planning to attend the Sochi Games, whether as athletes, coaches, relatives and supporters or journalists, given the confusion over what sort of "statement" constitutes propaganda under the law. A gay-pride march? A rainbow flag? A reasoned debate within earshot of anyone under 18?

In the view of U.S. bobsledder Steven Holcomb, 33, who won gold in the four-man at the 2010 Vancouver Games, a boycott would only serve Russia's interests.

"I think the Russians would love it if we boycotted," said Holcomb, who is seeking his third Olympic berth. "It'd be more medals for them. They'd be excited and happy: 'Hey, Steve Holcomb isn't showing up for the Games? Perfect! Another two more bobsled medals for us! Great.'

"I think we should show up -- pardon my French -- and kick their (butt) and take names and go from there. That'd be such a bigger statement, in my mind."

This is hardly the first generation of Olympians preparing to compete against a politically charged backdrop. The Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from making political statement at the site of the Games, but its ban doesn't extend beyond that.

Miller argued that politics and sports have been intertwined for ages. Pretending otherwise makes no sense, in his view, nor does demanding that athletes muzzle their views.

"I think asking an athlete to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy of all that different crap that goes along with it and tell them they can't express their views or can't say what they believe -- I think it's pretty hypocritical and unfair," Miller said.

Elana Meyers, a 2010 Olympic bronze medalist in bobsled, said her chief concern is for the safety of U.S. Olympians during their time in Sochi. Beyond that, Meyers said she believes it is more important that the United States make progress on the issue.

"I love this country; I love every minute being a citizen. I think we have the greatest country in the world," said Meyers, 28. "But we do have a lot of problems with (ensuring the rights of) our gay and lesbian and transgender community. A third of the states in this country don't have laws against discrimination of gay and transgender people. There are still states in this country that they can't get married.

"I think we really, as a country, need to focus on where we stand as far as gay, transgender and lesbian issues. Whatever Russia decides to do, I think that's an afterthought."


By LIZ CLARKE and RICK MAESE
The Washington Post