Gay Athletes Praise Obama's Refusal to Attend Olympics in Russia

American and international LGBT athletes say Obama’s decision to skip Sochi is a watershed moment.

gay rights russia protest

Gay rights activists hold a banner reading "Homophobia is the shame of Russia" in front of the Sochi 2014 organizing committee building in Moscow on Sept. 25. (Photo: Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

For gay athletes in America and around the world, the White House drew a critical line in the sand with its announcement Tuesday night that the president, the vice president, and the First Lady will not attend the Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia, a country the administration has sparred with over policy and criticized for human rights issues, including its anti-gay laws. 

In what is shaping up to become a critical 21st century moment in the fight for civil rights, openly gay athletes—tennis great Billie Jean King and ice hockey Olympic medalist Caitlin Cahow—will be a part of the United States Olympic delegation, as announced by the White House. It's another victory for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community. Opening ceremonies are Feb. 7.

The conflict really began to take shape in June, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an anti-gay “propaganda” bill that was vocally opposed by Obama and other world leaders.

In what world-watchers are calling the Kremlin's attempt to soothe critics, Putin's administration passed an amnesty law on Wednesday that could set free some of its fiercest opponents. Two members of the art punk protest group Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30—the crew of a Greenpeace ship detained after protesting in the Arctic—could be freed under the law. Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has written about her cruel detainment while serving a hooliganism sentence for a performance last year that criticized Putin.

Former NFL football player Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play, an organization dedicated to ensuring equal rights for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation, sees the moment as a watershed one for the United States. He came out of the closet as gay last year, almost a decade after he retired from the NFL.

“To choose Billie Jean King is saying, ‘Hey, I don’t fully experience what it’s like to be oppressed as an LGBT person, but these athletes do,’ ” says Davis. “Obama is putting LGBT athletes front and center. It’s really an example of him standing in solidarity with the LGBT community. This is another community for the U.S. to stand in unison with, in terms of issues of human rights, and show the humanity of LGBT individuals.”

The moment recalls another significant time, when black American track-and-fielder Jesse Owens dominated the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi-occupied Berlin, Germany, a country awash in racism and anti-Semitism. In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympic Games, U.S. track star John Carlos and sprinter Tommie Smith protested racial discrimination by raising their fists at the medal podium. Both were expelled.

Davis, who is also black, says Obama’s decision feels personally, as well as historically, important.

“As someone who never chose to take the opportunity to be out during my sport, it’s important to have a president who knows to live as openly and freely as you are,” Davis said. “Sports are a place where people can be a leader, as when Jesse Owens and John Carlos did what they did. I’m really grateful that the president sees sports as a platform to get messages out. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about some of the issues in Russia if it wasn’t for sports.”

Gay ice hockey player Jeff Kagan, president of Out of Bounds NYC, a nonprofit umbrella organization that supports LGBT sports and athletes in the greater New York City area, says Obama’s decision to include gay athletes in the U.S. delegation sends a message to the world that anti-gay discrimination is not OK.

“It is important for our leaders to lead by example and show the world the difference between right and wrong,” he says. “We always talk about safety in numbers, that the more people who stand by you gives you a sense of strength and solidarity. The president's gesture makes us feel stronger and safer today.”

Global alliances such as the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, an association of LGBT sports and human rights organizations, have also voiced their support.

Montreal-based Daniel Vaudrin, GLISA’s president, hopes that Canada’s prime minister follows in Obama footsteps. The presidents of France and Germany are also skipping the Sochi Olympics.

“It’s unacceptable to support a country that’s not forward-looking towards equality for all of its population,” Vaudrin says. “To see President Obama take such a lead role, it gives us hope that ours will do the same.”

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