4 min

More athletes, current and retired, weigh in on Sochi Olympics controversy

Pride House International launches same-sex hand-holding campaign in response to choice of Russia as host

Former NBA player John Amaechi Credit:

Both retired and current athletes continue to weigh in almost daily on the controversy surrounding the Sochi Winter Games, debating the merits of boycotting the event, and/or moving it to another country.

Former National Basketball Association (NBA) player John Amaechi, who is gay, weighed in on the controversy, telling Gaydio that the Games shouldn’t be held in Russia, but sees a boycott as impractical, Pink News reports.

“It should be practical because if you look at the Olympic Charter and the seven principles of Olympianism which speak of things like human dignity, which speak of things like not allowing discrimination for any reason – if you look at those principles the Olympics shouldn’t even be in Russia in the first place.”

While asking for a boycott is a “very principled thing to do,” Amaechi said, he felt that a critical mass of countries would not answer the call.

“It would be piecemeal. You would find that individual athletes would be punished by their federations and governing bodies. I don’t think people are aware of the contracts that athletes sign with Olympic organizations and even with individual sporting governing bodies.”

“They have signed a contract that dictates you should not make any overt political statements – and even though I don’t think standing up for human dignity is an overt political statement – governing bodies would certainly view it that way,” he added, referring to British Olympic athletes.

But Amaechi then added: "I think there’s no point in being a person of great power, there’s no point in being a person who can command microphones of journalists and media outlets across the world if you are not going to stand up for the important things.

“Do we really want to be in a position where athletes only ever stand up to sell their shoes? Or sell their clothing line? Or sell their appearances? It should be for things that are important. So I do think athletes should be on Twitter speaking to their audience about this.”

If not, Russia’s queer community and others subject to state oppression in Russia would not know that the world cares, he concluded.

On Aug 14, 2010 Winter Olympics gold medalist, Canadian Jon Montgomery, told Global News that while he would support a boycott, he felt that a more effective response to Russia’s anti-gay laws would be for gay athletes to participate and succeed at the Games.

For his part, Major League Soccer (MLS) player Robbie Rogers says he’s not in favour of a boycott, and instead, called on athletes to compete and chart a way forward for change.

A former Olympian himself, Rogers added: “Let’s hope that President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have provided all of us with an international teachable moment. If we take the time to think about how to make that happen and don’t act impulsively by jumping on the boycott bandwagon, perhaps the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia can be remembered instead for moving the ball forward in the fight for equal rights for all people everywhere. That’s my Olympic dream.”

However, Rogers is disappointed at the news that the International Olympic Committee may discipline athletes who make political statements critical of Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Athletes should be “encouraged to carry the symbol of gay pride,” Rogers says.

Whether the IOC plans to act on its statement, there are signs that athletes, in advance of the Games next year, are stepping up to register their solidarity with queer athletes and Russia’s queer community, as well as criticize the law that bans so-called propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors and in the media, as well as targets foreigners.

At the world athletics championships in Russia, Swedish high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro painted her nails in rainbow colours, saying “it felt right.” She indicated that she knew of at least one other Swedish athlete who had done the same.

“When I first came to Moscow, the first thing I saw when I opened the curtains was a rainbow over Moscow and I thought that was a pretty good sign,” she said, according to a Gay Star News report. Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva condemned Green-Tregaro's gesture as "disrespectful to our country, disrespectful to our citizens," The Guardian reports.

Isinbayeva, who will be the mayor of the main Olympic vilage for athletes, added: "Maybe we are different than European people and people from different lands. We have our law which everyone has to respect. When we go to different countries, we try to follow their rules. We are not trying to set our rules over there. We are just trying to be respectful. We consider ourselves, like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys … it comes from the history.

After claiming a silver medal in the 800-metre final at the world athletic championships in Russia, American Nick Symmonds told media, “whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.”

Yesterday, Pride House International, a coalition of queer sport and human rights groups launched a same-sex hand-holding campaign as part of its response to the International Olympic Committee’s choice of Russia as host nation for the 2014 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“There are extreme restrictions on the uniforms and other items worn by athletes at any Olympic Games,” Les Johnson of the Federation of Gay Games says. “Flags, badges, or pins are not allowed without IOC approval, a near-impossibility, and wearing something as seemingly innocuous as pink socks or shoelaces is very difficult for athletes to do, and complex to organize for other participants and spectators. But everyone can hold hands with their neighbour. Indeed, raising your rivals’ hands in camaraderie is an image we see on every podium at every sporting event.”

“Long after the 2014 Olympics, we in Russia will continue to live under this horrible law,” says the Russian LGBT Sports Federation’s Konstanin Yablotskiy. “For a few weeks we have the opportunity to bring the attention of the world to the situation in Russia. The Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative enables everyone to get involved with a simple yet iconic gesture."