Commentary

No easy answers on anti-gay law

Updated: October 1, 2013, 8:13 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PARK CITY, Utah -- Sitting in a reporter-filled conference room with cameras, microphones and recorders rolling, many athletes at this week's Olympic media summit have chosen to answer questions about Russia's new anti-gay laws very carefully.

But not Bode Miller.

"I think it's absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and there are people who are that intolerant and that ignorant," Miller said Monday when asked about the law. "But it's not the first time. We've been dealing with human-rights issues since probably there were humans. I think it's crappy that we don't have a better system of dealing with that stuff.

"It's unfortunate it gets stuffed together. There are politics in sports -- they are intertwined even though people always try to keep them separate, and I think asking an athlete to go somewhere to compete and be a representative of a philosophy and all the crap that goes with it, and then telling them that they can't say what they believe is pretty hypocritical and unfair."

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun denied that potential American Olympians were told not to speak their minds about the issue.

"What we are doing is making our athletes aware of the law and aware of the possible consequences," Blackmun said here Tuesday. "Because our job is first and foremost to make sure our athletes are safe as possible while they're in Russia."

The difficulty is determining just what will and will not be allowed under the new Russian law that bans promoting what it states as "non-traditional sexuality." Blackmun said the USOC is seeking clarification, but "I'm not sure the IOC [International Olympic Committee] will be able to give it to us."

In the meantime, athletes are handling the frequent questions as best they can.

"It is a distraction," figure skater Ashley Wagner said Monday. "It's something that we've been warned will be a distraction. Not in a bad way, but that we will get extra media questions about it. When you want to be talking about your skating, you will get asked about this."

That doesn't bother Wagner, who says that, to the contrary, she doesn't feel comfortable staying silent on the subject.

[+] EnlargeAshley Wagner
AP Photo/Rick BowmerAshley Wagner on being asked about Russia's anti-gay law: "You get a lot of people who don't agree with your stance and they want to make sure you know they don't agree with your stance."

"It's an issue I feel so strongly about just because my life is really surrounded by the LGBT community," Wagner said. "I've talked to so many athletes who agree with what I've said and who think it's a horrible thing for the LGBT community in Russia.

"But I understand at the same time why a lot of athletes stay quiet about it, because it is a huge responsibility to talk about it. You get a huge amount of, not backlash, but you get a lot of media questions and you get a lot of people who don't agree with your stance and they want to make sure you know they don't agree with your stance."

Figure skater Jeremy Abbott described the issue as polarizing.

"There is no way to answer this question properly without offending somebody, and I think that's why we all feel like we're walking on eggshells," he said. "We want to be true to ourselves and our sport. At the end of the day, we're athletes and we need to perform as athletes and to represent our country to the best of our abilities."

Indeed, several athletes preferred to focus their responses on competing. As pairs skater Marissa Castelli said Tuesday, "Our job is to train and do the best we can."

"I think Caydee and I both think the foundation of being American is not believing in discrimination," pairs figure skater John Coughlin said, with skating partner Caydee Denney nodding in agreement. "It's kind of against what the Olympics are about, [which is] embracing everybody. But we're athletes and we want to compete."

There was some talk of a U.S. boycott when the law was first announced, but USOC chairman Larry Probst essentially said Tuesday that will not happen.

"I personally do not see any upside to a boycott," Probst said. "I think any talk of that has died down. The athletes are not in favor of that. With the exception of one U.S. senator, I have not heard any member of Congress float that idea any time recently. I think that is a non-issue at this point."

Probst said he would absolutely vote in favor of an amendment to the Olympic charter that would ban any discrimination against athletes based on sexual orientation.

While Miller said he finds the law embarrassing "as a human being," bobsledder Elana Meyers brought up an important point to keep in mind throughout this: The U.S. is wrestling with LGBT issues, as well.

"I love this country. I love being a citizen. I believe we are the greatest country in the world. But we do have a lot of problems with [the lack of rights for] our gay and lesbian community and transgender community," Meyers said. "There are a third of the states in this country that don't have laws against discrimination of the gay and transgender athletes, or gay and transgender people in general. There are still states in this country where they can't get married.

"I think as a country we really need to focus on where we stand on gay, lesbian and transgender issues, and then whatever Russia decides to do is an afterthought. But we really need to focus on where we stand on those issues."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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