WASHINGTON — With the Olympics less than one month away, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee made some of his strongest remarks yet urging athletes not to protest Russia's anti-LGBT laws at the Sochi Games — drawing rebukes from activists.
"They're there to compete. They're not there to talk about their politics or their religion or anything else. So for us, we really just want the attention focused on our athletes and their great competitions," USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun said in an interview with ESPN.
"We're hoping that our athletes feel very comfortable speaking their minds before they go to the games. But when they get to the games, that's really the time to focus on sport," he added.
"His comments were unnecessary and bordering on speech police. Mr. Blackmun: We do actually want athletes to speak out and you shouldn't be telling them not to. Don't put a muzzle on them," Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz told BuzzFeed.
Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, also took issue with Blackmun's comments, specifically noting the International Olympic Committee own anti-discrimination policies — found in Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter.
"What's important to remember is that the Olympic Games are not just about competition. They are about values and principles," he told BuzzFeed. "Supporting Olympic Principle 6's commitment to LGBT inclusion in the face of Russia's laws is not mutually exclusive to focusing on the sport. In many ways, it's one and the same."
Mark Jones, a spokesman for the USOC, defended the remarks, telling BuzzFeed on Wednesday afternoon, "As you know, we recognize the seriousness of the issue and Scott has repeatedly said that the law is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic Movement. He was asked if we are encouraging athletes to protest at the games."
All Out, another organization that has been pressing for the IOC to protect LGBT rights, pushed back, with co-founder Andre Banks telling BuzzFeed, "If the Sochi Olympics are focused on gay rights, it will be because the IOC and Olympic sponsors have not pushed harder on the Russian government to repeal it's anti-gay laws before the Games."
Of Blackmun's comments that the Olympics are not a time for politics, Banks added, "It's not about politics, it's about the fundamental principles that define the Olympic movement. Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter bars discrimination. Athletes who take that seriously should be considered true Olympians, not troublemakers."
Brian Ellner, a board member of Athlete Ally who has been working to increase the number of athletes supporting LGBT rights, noted that athletes have been speaking up and condemning Russia's anti-LGBT laws and that he expects that to continue, saying, "With billions around the world watching we anticipate that athletes and fans will choose to speak out for fairness at Sochi."
Sainz agreed: "We hope that athletes express their opinions in a manner that is in conformance with IOC rules. It would be a mistake not to speak up against the heinous laws and practices that are going on in Russia right now."