As an openly gay Olympic four-time gold medalist, you might expect that I would be in favor of joining prominent LGBT activists in calling for America to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia.
After all, Russia’s recently passed laws cracking down on gays and lesbians violate everything I’ve spent my career fighting for; namely, love and respect for all people. It was hard enough to compete as a gay, closeted athlete in the United States. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like for gay athletes in Russia, knowing that if you were to come out, you would be considered a criminal and could lose everything you’ve worked your entire life to achieve.
But while I’m strongly opposed to Vladimir Putin’s treatment of the LGBT community and will fight hard to reverse these heinous laws, I do not support a U.S. boycott of the Sochi Games.
Boycotting sends the wrong message and will only harm the hard-working athletes set to compete in the 2014 Olympics, not the Russian government itself. I know from personal experience. My first Olympics I won Silver at age 16, and then in 1980, at the height of my diving career, President Jimmy Carter opted to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow as a method of protesting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The toll on fellow athletes and me was devastating. We had trained our entire lives for that one moment. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to continue my diving career and return to compete and win two gold medals in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles (an Olympics the Eastern Block counties boycotted) and repeat two gold medals in 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But, other athletes were not so lucky. Some of those who missed the 1980 games never had another chance to shine. This boycott hurt the wrong people, taking a toll on prominent athletes more than the country it targeted.
I’m concerned the same would be true today. There are far too many athletes for whom the 2014 Sochi Olympics represents their only chance at success. A boycott will only hurt these athletes’ careers.
There’s a better way to speak out against President Putin and call out his bigotry for exactly what it is: speaking up for equal rights and educating people around the world about the persistence of homophobia. I’ve spent my post-diving career doing just this. I’ve promoted HIV/AIDS awareness, defended the civil liberties of the LGBT community, and taken a stand against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Rather than boycott, I, along with several amazing organizations including Athlete Ally and All Out, plan to use the Sochi Games as a teachable moment for the world.
Along with other athletes, I will continue to speak up about these disgusting laws which discriminate against gays and lesbians. I’ve signed this petition aimed directly at the International Olympic Committee, urging the IOC to condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws before the Olympics.
As athletes, the most valuable thing we can do is send a strong, unified message to Russia and its president that we will not stand for this cruel and repressive treatment. We will not stop until gay people in Russia are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.