Retired tennis champion Billie Jean King on Monday said individual athletes should decide whether to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics that will take place in Sochi, Russia, early next year.
“The athletes who have the most to derive from it and the least to derive from it if they don’t go, I think they should get the vote,” she said in response to a Washington Blade question about the issue on a conference call during which she discussed an episode of the PBS series “American Masters” that profiles her that debuts on the network Sept. 10. “This is the Olympics. This is about the athletes and the fans, so it’s a really hard call.”
King, who came out as a lesbian in 1981 after her relationship with her secretary became public, spoke about calls to boycott the Sochi games as outrage over a law that bans gay propaganda to minors in Russia and the country’s overall LGBT rights record continues to grow.
Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov and gay playwright Harvey Fierstein are among those who have called for a boycott of the Sochi games. Author Dan Savage, LGBT rights advocate Cleve Jones and others have called for a boycott of Russian vodka.
Gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who was unable to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because then-President Jimmy Carter boycotted them over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the year before, publicly opposes any boycott of the Sochi games. Retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova and President Obama are among those who have taken a similar position.
American runner Nick Symmonds earlier this month criticized Russia’s gay propaganda ban after he competed in the World Athletic Championships in the Russian capital. Figure skater Johnny Weir, whose husband is of Russian descent, told CBS News he is “not afraid of being arrested” while at the Olympics.
Swedish athletes Emma Green Tregaro and Mao Hjelmer painted their fingernails in rainbow colors as they competed in the World Athletic Championships. Green Tregaro wore red fingernail polish during an Aug. 17 high jump competition at the same event because Swedish athletic officials reportedly asked her to change their color.
Yelena Isinbayeva, a Russian Olympic pole vault championship, criticized Green Tregaro and Hjelmer during a press conference after she won her third title at the World Athletic Championships. She also defended the gay propaganda law that President Vladimir Putin signed in June.
“We are Russians,” Isinbayeva said. “Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law that everyone has to respect.”
Russian sprinter Kseniya Ryzhova last week dismissed suggestions she and teammate Tatyana Firova challenged the gay propaganda ban when they kissed on the medal podium after they won the women’s 4 x 400 meter rally at the World Athletic Championships.
“There was no hidden political motive,” Ryzhova said, as Reuters reported.
The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from the Kremlin that gay people would be welcome to attend the Sochi games, even though Russian officials have said they plan to enforce the gay propaganda ban during the Olympics. Russian LGBT rights advocates maintain a decree that Putin issued on Aug. 23 that bans demonstrations and other gatherings in Sochi between Jan. 9 and March 21 is designed to stop any protests against the law.
“There’s a part of me that says, ‘Let’s go, let’s play, but let’s give our thoughts,’” King said as she referred to Tommie Smith and John Carlos who raised their fists in the air as they stood on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. “This could be an opportunity … you have to ask the athletes whatever they decide.”