Tennis great Billie Jean King arrived for Sunday’s closing of the 2014 Winter Olympics with a message for Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community: Hang in, hang on, and you’re not alone.
“Having the Winter Olympics here, the situation here in Russia, has opened up dialogue,” King said Saturday. “I’m always big on love over hate, and I think it’s important that everyone’s treated equally and good to each other. Hopefully, the LGBT community here in Russia knows that they’re not alone and we’ll learn from them.”
King, who is gay, is part of the official U.S. delegation that will witness the end of the 23-day international sports festival. Her presence represents the United States’ objection to a so-called “anti-propaganda” law that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last June.
The law, widely viewed as an anti-gay measure, prohibits individuals from promoting “homosexual behavior” and spreading “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors.
President Barack Obama, along with several other world leaders, skipped the Winter Games’ opening ceremony to show their opposition to the law. Obama also sent one of the lowest-level official U.S. delegations to Sochi for the opening ceremony, a contingent that included two gay former Olympians.
An annoyed International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach chastised heads of state and other world leaders who passed on Sochi and accused them of injecting politics into the games and onto the backs of athletes.
King said Saturday the separation of politics and sport is an unrealistic dream.
“Politics are in everything,” said King, who played a politically-charged “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs at a packed Houston Astrodome in 1973. “To try to act as if there’s not is really keeping our heads in the sand. Of course there’s politics.”
She said the IOC needs to alter the Olympic Charter to specifically state that it forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Currently, Principle 6 of the charter states that any form of discrimination on the grounds of “race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” is “incompatible with belongings to the Olympic movement.”
“Instead of saying ‘And other,’ I would like it to say ‘sexual orientation’ as well or include it very specifically,” she said, noting the United States Olympic Committee charter addresses sexual orientation. “If it’s in there, everyone’s very clear. I like clarity. If there’s anything we should specifically mention, we should do that, too. I would look beyond the LGBT situation. I’d look to see if we’ve forgotten something as well.”
But King acknowledged that such a change would be a hot button issue for several IOC member nations that either have anti-gay laws or take a dim view of homosexuality. She estimated about 80 countries among the IOC’s 204 member nations would likely voice objections.
“It’s not that easy,” King said. “It sounds so easy from the outside but the internal situation to have change takes time, takes a lot of dialogue. There’s a lot of politics in everything, particularly when you have this many countries belonging to the IOC.”
King was joined Saturday by fellow delegation members William Burns, a U.S. deputy Secretary of State, Michael McFaul, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia, and Olympic speed skating gold medalists Bonnie Blair and Dr. Eric Heiden.
Burns and McFaul credited Russia for hosting a successful Winter Games. However, Burns expressed concern about the treatment of members of the controversial Russian punk band Pussy Riot, who were beaten with horsewhips by Russian Cossacks in Sochi earlier this week while attempting to perform an anti-Putin song. The Associated Press reported Saturday that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said the Cossack who horsewhipped members of Pussy Riot has been “held accountable” for the attack.
“Certainly there’s no excuse for anyone using violence against peaceful protestors, and that true not just here but anyplace in the world,” Burns said. That aside, King said “I think it’s been a really successful Olympics. The Russians have done really well.”