When the White House named the delegation President Obama plans to send to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, many took it as a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Absent were any high-ranking U.S. officials: The president is too busy to attend, the White House said. But on the list were prominent LGBT athletes, which many took as a clear rebuke of Russia's controversial anti-gay laws.
Brian Boitano, who won the 1988 gold medal for figure skating, is one of the delegates, though he didn't come out as gay until two days after the White House released the names of the people who would represent the U.S.
"If you would have told me five minutes before the press release came out that I was going to come out, I would have said you were crazy," Boitano tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish. "I've always been a private person. But this was a time to push my comfort zone. And the message was so strong that I felt like I really needed to do it at this time."
At the height of his career in 1988, Boitano says coming out was not an option. His agent told him that he needed to keep his sexuality quiet so that he could secure endorsements. Even though he only recently came out publicly, Boitano says people in his life have known he is gay. But, he says, he wanted to be known for his skating achievements rather than his sexuality.
"I always felt that my private life was something that I would share with people who are close to me," he says. "So it will be something that I have to get used to."
Boitano will join hockey player Caitlin Cahow and tennis champion Billie Jean King in Sochi in February. Both Cahow and King are openly gay. Others in the U.S. delegation include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.
The U.S. Olympic Committee recently revised its nondiscrimination policy to specifically include sexual orientation.
Many gay-rights supporters have called on the U.S. to boycott the 2014 games to show disapproval for the anti-gay legislation. But Boitano says that isn't the right tactic. He points to the boycott President Jimmy Carter organized of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to oppose the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
"It was devastating for many, many athletes who have worked their life for this one moment in sports," Boitano says. "So that's why I think that delegations like the presidential delegation that I'm on are important. ... Let the athletes focus on what they're doing and the job at hand. And let athletes like me, Billie Jean and Caitlin stand up for them and represent the gay community."
Boitano says he hasn't planned to make a statement when he goes to Sochi beyond being present. And that, he says, is statement enough.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
President Obama sent a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin last month when he, A, announced no high ranking U.S. officials would go to the Sochi Olympics and, B, handpicked a delegation including three openly gay athletes to represent the U.S. The move comes in response to Russia passing several anti-gay laws, and we're going to hear now from one of those athletes that President Obama chose. Figure skating gold medallist Brian Boitano, a hero of the 1988 Olympics, welcome to the program.
BRIAN BOITANO: Oh, thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Now, you did not come out until two days after you were appointed to the Olympic delegation. What was behind your decision?
BOITANO: You know, it was really based on the president's message. When I got invited to be on the delegation, I didn't really have an idea that he was sending a message. And when the news articles came out declaring that he was sending a message of diversity and tolerance, I thought, wow, this is an opportunity for me. I really need to jump in with both feet and reveal, you know, my private life like I had never done before. But because I wanted to represent the country and represent his message, I really felt it was time for me to do that.
CORNISH: But in the past, you've strongly guarded your privacy, your sexuality. And suddenly, you're a very public messenger for tolerance. Is that a shift that's taken some getting used to?
BOITANO: It is a shift. I mean, before the press release came out of the president choosing the delegation it did, if you would've told me five minutes before the press release came out that I was going to come out, I would've said you're crazy. But as soon as it did, it gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate certain aspects of my life, call my family, and discuss how important this is. I've always been a very private person but this was a time to push my comfort zone. And the message was so strong that I really felt like I needed to do it at this time.
CORNISH: But you were saying that five minutes before the press release went out, you would've - if someone said you would've done this, that you would've thought they were crazy. Why? I mean, how guarded have you been?
BOITANO: I have been - I'm - it's - I don't know if it's guarded but - and I've never been in or out. I have just been me. People in my life have always known about me. But I really always wanted to be known for my contribution to skating and my achievements. And I always felt that my private life was something special that I would share with people who are close to me. So it will be something that I have to get used to.
CORNISH: There have been many public figures recently who have announced to the public that they are gay, and only a handful of those have been in the world of sports. And I don't know if you find that it is difficult for athletes in particular.
BOITANO: It's really difficult for athletes. I mean, in the Olympics in 1988, it was the height of homophobia. And, you know, I had an agent. My very first agent said, I don't know if you are gay or not, but you can't tell anyone and you need to make sure that you are completely private about it. And, you know, we need to get endorsements, you know, for you and so you just need to be quiet. So in that day and age in the '80s, as an athlete, it wasn't even an option to come out.
CORNISH: Now, since Russia passed these anti-gay laws, there have been calls from LGBT activists to boycott the games entirely. How do you feel about that?
BOITANO: I am not in favor of boycotting the games entirely, and I'll tell you why - because I think we learned a lot from the 1980 Olympics. Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics in Russia because of the invasion of Afghanistan. And so it was devastating for many, many athletes who have worked their life for this one moment in sports. And so, I think that that's why delegations like the presidential delegation that I'm on are important because let the athletes focus on what they're doing and the job at hand and creating their dreams, and let athletes like me, Billy Jean, Caitlin stand up for them and represent the gay community.
CORNISH: And right now, are you or anyone else in the delegation planning any other kind of protests in what you're wearing or what you'll be doing at the opening ceremonies?
BOITANO: I haven't spoken to the other delegates but I am not planning on doing that. I think there is a fine line in respecting the country that you're in and just being - I think just being who we are. And stepping off the plane in Sochi as a team and a delegation representing our president is going to be a very strong message. And I think it will get a lot of attention.
CORNISH: Figure skating gold medallist Brian Boitano. He was chosen by President Obama to represent the U.S. at the opening ceremonies at the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOITANO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.