As Canadian Olympians march in gay pride parades across the country or field questions from media at training sessions, they seem to echo a common sentiment about anti-gay legislation recently passed in Russia.
They strongly disagree with it, but say boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Games wouldn’t solve anything.
As February’s Olympics approach, a spotlight is on the law signed in June by Russian President Vladimir Putin which would penalize people who spread “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Foreign citizens arrested under the law could be jailed for up to 15 days and then deported.
The International Olympic Committee says it is satisfied with Russia’s assurances it will not discriminate against homosexuals during the Sochi Games. But the Russian government also says it stands by its law.
Left open is the question of what would happen to an athlete or fan who makes a statement or gesture that could be considered “propaganda.”
“I guess I feel very fortunate to be born in Canada, where people’s rights are respected,” said women’s hockey player Caroline Ouellette, a three-time Olympic gold medalist. “I feel like groups have fought for years to obtain that right to be equal. I think the [Russian laws] are a step behind. On the other hand, we’re going there, on their own soil, so we have to respect their laws. That’s the reality of it.
“People have different laws in different countries and it’s hard to go there and expect you can change things. But I think that by speaking out and saying that it’s not all right, if only we can, by the voice of the majority, influence them to see that there’s nothing wrong with being gay,” she said. “People don’t choose to be gay. It’s not a choice. Hopefully, they can eventually change their minds and those rights can be respected for all.”
However, Ouellette believes a boycott – which some have called for – would be counterproductive.
“I think we need to go and we need to say loudly that we don’t agree with it,” the 34-year-old forward said. “You work all your life for a chance to go to the Olympic Games. It’s once every four years. I can’t imagine not being able to go. By us not going, there’s nothing that can be achieved.”
Fourteen-year NHL veteran defenceman Dan Boyle says when he arrived in Calgary for training camp, he was caught unaware by the questions about the anti-gay legislation. It hadn’t been discussed in the dressing room by the men’s players, who were instead concentrating on learning the team system in the 48-hour mini-orientation.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t quite informed about what [the law] was,” Boyle said. “I was told that it’s okay to be gay, but if you’re caught kissing [in public], you could get arrested. My comment on that is, ‘Wow.’ I can’t believe that.”
Handfuls of athletes – summer and winter, retired and active – have been representing the Canadian Olympic Committee at gay pride parades this summer. But the COC says it is not a reaction to the Russian legislation, nor is it a political strategy.
The COC sent an e-mail to its current and retired athletes inviting them to the parades months before the new Russian legislation came to be. The goal: Get Canadian athletes into the community as much as possible to make them household names.
“Being in the parades was something that we planned in February, as we were being proactive in identifying a key community event that takes place each year in Canada. And we’re ecstatic about our involvement and we look forward to participating again next year,” said Dimitri Soudas, COC executive director of communications. “The Olympic movement does not comment on political matters or domestic legislation. We are apolitical. I always say that power of sport is the most unifying power in the world.”
As the Russian men’s and women’s hockey teams unveiled their Olympic jerseys Monday in Moscow, forward Alexander Ovechkin avoided the topic.
“[There are] calls to boycott the Games?” the Washington Capitals star told sports.ru. “Our job is to play. I’d rather speak about that.”
Some athletes, however, stood by their government.
“I agree, of course. I’m Russian and we all have to respect that,” former New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk told TSN. “It’s personal and, like I said, it’s a free world, but that’s our line. That’s our country, so everybody has to respect that.”
Canadian figure skater Patrick Chan, a favourite for gold in Sochi, spoke on behalf of equal rights for all, but says he won’t focus on making any political gestures.
“I just mind my own business. I have no dislike of Russia. … In my opinion, I’m here to do my job, and it doesn’t matter who you are on the ice,” the 22-year-old three-time world champion said. “It doesn’t matter what colour you are, or what sexuality you are, you deserve to be on the ice if you have the talent.
“But I’m not going there to dispute anything. I’m not a politician.”