Sochi: USOC says politics off-limits

Updated: January 14, 2014, 2:28 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- The United States Olympic Committee will not take an official position on what forms of protest of Russia's anti-gay laws will be acceptable at the Sochi Winter Olympics, chief executive officer Scott Blackmun told ESPN on Monday.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King, Barack Obama
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesBillie Jean King, who was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009, will help help lead the U.S. delegation at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Instead, the organization will defer to the International Olympic Committee, whose charter bans political demonstrations by participants at the Games.

"At the end of the day, the International Olympic Committee is very clear that what's great about the Olympic experience is that it brings people with different points of view together," Blackmun told ESPN's Julie Foudy during an interview at the Clinton Health Matters Conference on kids and sport. "They're there to compete. They're not there to talk about their politics or their religion or anything else. So for us, we really just want the attention focused on our athletes and their great competitions.

"We're hoping that our athletes feel very comfortable speaking their minds before they go to the Games. But when they get to the Games, that's really the time to focus on sport."

Earlier this month, tennis great Billie Jean King warned U.S. Olympians about protesting for gay rights at the Sochi Olympics, which begin Feb. 7.

Gay rights have become an issue in Sochi because of a new Russian law that criminalizes discussion of "non-traditional sexual relations" in the presence of children.

President Obama has been publicly critical of the law. He appointed King, two-time Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and 1988 figure skating champion Brian Boitano, who are all openly gay, to the official U.S. delegation at the opening ceremonies.

For the first time since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the delegation will not include the president, the first lady or the vice president. The presidents of Germany and France are also among the leaders not traveling to the Olympics.

While King lauded the message Obama's choices sent, she also warned athletes of the consequences of protesting during the Games.

"I don't want any athlete getting in trouble, although I think they should do anything they want," King recently told The Associated Press. "Before I knew about Rule 50 [of the Olympic charter], I thought it would be sweet to wave some flags or something. But they can get in big trouble and have their medal taken away and also be sent home."

Asked about the diverse delegation the White House selected to walk in the opening ceremonies, Blackmun said, "That's really not for us to comment on. That was a White House choice. We look forward to having them support our athletes in Sochi."

The specter of terrorism is also hanging over the Sochi Olympics after last month's deadly bombings in the central Russian city of Volgograd, which is approximately 600 miles from Sochi. Last week, the State Department issued a travel warning to Americans planning to attend the Games.

While the department said it was not aware of specific threat to U.S. interests related to the Games, it noted that large events like the Olympics are "an attractive target for terrorists" and that Americans should be aware of their surroundings and take common-sense precautions to stay safe, notably on public transport.

Russia's most-wanted militant, Doku Umarov, has vowed to disrupt the Olympics.

"It certainly got our attention," Blackmun said of the bombings in Volgograd. "But it's a long way from Sochi to Volgograd, where that happened. So we're not at a point where we think it's going to impact our athletes directly. But you have to be careful. As you know, the State Department issued a travel alert last week and we're certainly paying close attention."

As always, Blackmun said, "athlete safety is our highest priority."

He said that the USOC is working directly with the State Department to ensure the safety of all U.S. athletes.

"Each Games, there are different kinds of security challenges," he said. "We're fortunate that our State Department has a good relationship with the Russian authorities."

Blackmun said he thinks the American team will have a strong effort in Sochi this year, particularly in skiing, snowboarding, hockey and long-track skiing. He's also thrilled that women's ski jumping will be making its Olympic debut this year.

"I spent a fair amount of time talking to Deedee Corradini [president of the women's ski jumping foundation] about it. I was a big fan, I wanted it to happen, so I'm thrilled that it did happen," Blackmun said of women's ski jumping, which was added to the program for these Olympics in a 2011 vote.

He's also pulling for current world champion Sarah Hendrickson, who is still recovering from a knee injury suffered in a training crash almost five months ago.

"I really hope that Sarah gets an opportunity to compete," Blackmun said. "She's been working hard in the rehab and I think she's almost ready to hit the snow."

One American star who will not be able to compete in Sochi is skier Lindsey Vonn, who recently had to withdraw when it became clear she would not be able to recover from a serious knee injury in time for the Games.

"We have so many great athletes that it's hard to look at that and say it was a disappointment for us," Blackmun said. "But I will be honest: Lindsey Vonn is such a competitor. We are such a strong team with Lindsey. But I'm sure we're going to be a very strong team without Lindsey."

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