The U.S. Olympic Committee has given its athletes free rein to criticize Russia's controversial anti-gay legislation in the lead-up to the nation's hosting of the 2014 Winter Games.
While the International Olympic Committee seeks to prevent athletes from using the Games as a forum for political discussion, the USOC made no secret of its opposition to the Russian law that effectively bans public support of homosexuality on its soil. With the Winter Olympics in Sochi just four months away, the words and actions of USOC chief Scott Blackmun was the strongest stance the organization could realistically take.
"Even though we have been assured by the IOC that the new law will not directly impact anybody in Russia for the Games, it is important for us to emphasize that we believe the law is inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic and Paralympic movements," Blackmun stated in a release. "To bring that point home, our board voted to amend the USOC's code of conduct to include specific mention of sexual orientation in our own non-discrimination policy.
"We have told our athletes, your athletes, where we stand and we have given them the freedom to express themselves in the run-up to the Games however they see fit."
Olympians such as middle-distance track athlete Nick Symmonds and downhill skier Bode Miller have been outspoken in denouncing Russia's policies – and Blackmun highlighted the comments of both as the kind of free speech the USOC is happy to support.
Miller described the law as "absolutely embarrassing" and "ignorant" while Symmonds, who competed in the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, vowed to do anything he could to champion the cause "shy of getting arrested."
The USOC's move will likely meet with the full approval of human rights groups, who have actively sought to highlight the restrictions the law will place on Russia's LGBT community.
The USOC also is seeking clarity on the IOC's Rule 50 – which prohibits any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" from "any Olympic sites, venues or other areas" – and how it will be implemented in Sochi.
Comments made in the media about Russia's policies could be covered under the rule, as could any sign, banner or other politically-motivated protest.
Blackmun stopped short of calling for a change in legislation, insisting it was not his place to do so. "The fact that we do not think it is our role to advocate for a change in the Russian law does not mean that we support the law," Blackmun said. "And we do not."
The USOC's shift in its own policy came in the "Commitment to Integrity" section of its bylaws. The amended section now reads: "The USOC is committed to honesty and integrity as the cornerstone of our activities. In turn, the USOC expects you to conduct yourself in an ethical and legal manner as a representative of the USOC. This requires you to: respect the rights of all individuals to fair treatment and equal opportunity, free from discrimination or harassment of any type, including, without limitation discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin or otherwise."
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