Ashley Wagner, who finished second last weekend in the prestigious Skate America competition in Detroit, may never win an Olympic medal. The two-time defending U.S. ladies figure skating champion may not wow the judges in Sochi, Russia in February and become America’s latest figure skating sweetheart. But the 22-year-old Wagner’s got guts and a moral compass, so I’ll be rooting for her when the U.S. Figure Skating championships come to Boston in January, an event that essentially doubles as the Olympic trials.
You’ve probably heard by now that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an “anti-gay propaganda” bill into law last summer. It is a vague piece of legislation “banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships to minors.” The law does not define exactly what a “non-traditional sexual relationship” is, nor what constitutes the “promotion” of same, but the law is clearly homophobic and has given license to vigilantes to harass and sometimes beat gay activists throughout Russia. Any public championing of gay pride is now a punishable offense in the land of Putin, and the law will apply to foreign athletes who will be in Sochi for the upcoming Olympics. Said Russia’s Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko: “An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi… but if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”
The message? Compete, but stay in the closet. No Olympic Gay Pride House, as there was in 2010 in Vancouver. No rainbow flags during opening or closing ceremonies. No speeches of support or marches promoting gay rights.
The International Olympic Committee, never on the forefront of human rights issues, has said Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law doesn’t violate the Olympic charter (even though the Olympic charter rejects discrimination). “As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied,” says IOC vice-president Jean-Claude Killy.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, not much different from the IOC in its aversion to making a principled stand, has also refused to criticize the new laws publicly. “First and foremost we are a sport’s organization,” USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun told reporters. “We are not an advocacy organization or a human rights organization.” It has quietly counseled athletes to be very careful about speaking out on the issue. They haven’t forbidden it, but keeping quiet has been strongly recommended.
Enter Ashley Wagner. At the Olympic media summit in Park City on Sept. 30, she was asked her opinion of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law. Not one to court controversy, the demure Wagner expressed nervousness at answering the question. But then she did so. “I have gay family members. I have a lot of friends in the LBGT community,” she started. “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.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Dignified. Reasonable. Principled. But to date she has been one of very few skaters to address the issue, despite the fact that many top skaters and coaches, past and present, are gay. Many of the sport’s fans are gay. You would think that figure skating would rise up as one and decry Russia’s laws and Putin’s homophobia — as the artistic community has done (Elton John, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lady Gaga, Cher have all spoken out against the law). But the skating community has raised barely a peep. Asked at the same media summit for his opinion on Russia’s stance on gay rights, 2010 Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek hid behind the USOC. “I really prefer to leave it up to them to comment,” Lysacek said. “I feel one voice is most powerful.”
One largely silent voice. Two-time mens champion Jeremy Abbott virtually ran from the subject when Russia’s anti-gay laws were brought up. “It’s a very polarized issue,” he said at the media summit. “I think there is no right answer. We all feel we are walking on eggshells. We have to be cautious about what we say.”
Reigning world ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White also did a deft sidestep. “I don’t think the Olympics is the right place for an athlete to make a political statement,” said Davis, ignoring the fact that they weren’t at the Olympics. They were in the good ol’ USA where free speech is a constitutional right.
When 1984 gold medalist Scott Hamilton, who will be doing commentary for NBC at the Games, was asked about the anti-gay propaganda laws, he, too, took cover: “I don’t like controversy when it comes to off-ice issues,” he said in a taped interview on a skating website. “I don’t see any upside to all this.”
So far other influential skating voices have been similarly mum on the subject, unlike skier Bode Miller, a four-time Olympian, who called the laws “ignorant” and “embarrassing.” Former skating gold medalists Brian Boitano, Kristi Yamaguchi and Sarah Hughes, all of whom post on Twitter almost daily, have been silent on the anti-gay propaganda laws. Only Johnny Weir, an openly gay skater who competed in two Olympics but never medalled, has spoken out against them. But where are the voices of such heavyweights as Dick Button, Peggy Fleming, and Dorothy Hamill? Or USFSA President Patricia St. Peter?
Few people believe that a Sochi boycott is the proper response to the situation. But turning a deaf ear and a zippered mouth toward Russia’s anti-gay laws draws uncomfortable comparisons to the international community’s silence in the face of anti-Semitism during the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmish-Partenkirchen and the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.
One voice may not make much of a difference. But silence is, effectively, assent. “I think it’s horrible the treatment the LBGT community gets in Russia,” said Wagner. “I have access to the media and have been given this opportunity where people can hear my voice. The best way you can show your support for the community is to just speak about it. At least that’s doing something.”