Openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup says he will stand up for his beliefs in Sochi
New Zealander intends to wear rainbow-themed badge at Games if he qualifies
28-year-old says he is standing in solidarity with "oppressed" Russians.
He’s unlikely to break a world record or even win a medal but New Zealand’s Blake Skjellerup is likely to generate plenty of headlines if he gets to February’s Winter Olympics.
The speed skater is currently the only openly gay athlete who could compete in Sochi, at a Games already tinged by Russia’s controversial laws on homosexuality.
The June ruling prohibits the distribution of information to minors promoting same-sex relationships and the public discussion of gay rights, but Skjellerup has promised not to shy away from the issue.
Instead, he’s planning to tackle it head on.
Read: Putin says gays and lesbians welcome in Sochi
And if Russian President Vladimiar Putin, who signed off the bill, is sincere when recently saying that all competitors will be welcome – “regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation” – then the 28-year-old’s potential arrival will be the acid test.
Especially if he starts wearing the rainbow badge that has been made especially for him, one bearing the words “Blake Skjellerup – Proud 2014”.
“I will express my feelings and emotions openly (in Sochi),” the Kiwi told CNN.
“I am not going to go back into the closet in any way. I am proud of who I am.
“Yes, Sochi is about my competitive nature – it’s about me competing as a speed skater – but on the other hand, it’s about standing up for what I believe in and being proud of that.”
Skjellerup came out after competing at the last Winter Olympics, saying he had chosen not to do so beforehand in order to avoid unwanted distractions in his build-up.
In Vancouver four years ago, he reached the quarterfinals in the men’s 1000m short-track event – and he will soon find out if he has qualified for the 500m at next year’s Games.
Another reason given for not coming out prior to the 2010 Games was a reluctance to alienate sponsors and in August, Skjellerup launched an online campaign to generate funds for his Sochi participation.
This was predicated upon a desire to represent the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, with the Kiwi explaining in a promotional video that “love is a human right” and decrying the fact that the act of same-sex couples holding hands in Russia could lead to a jail term.
He has also produced a badge that he will sell to raise funds for his participation and which he intends to wear in Russia, despite the punishments that could come his way.
“The idea behind the pins is about showing a part of me that I am very proud to be,” explained a man who lives and trains in the Canadian city Calgary.
Read: Russian activists lobby U.S. on anti-gay law
“In my mind, it is no different to (sporting) a cross or a cultural tattoo. The pin is something I can wear to show that I am proud of who I am and also offer solidarity to the people of Russia, because it is not fair what is happening to them.
“I am in their country, I should respect that but I respect them, because they are the ones who are being oppressed – and they are the ones who are having to hide who they are and having to live their lives in a way that isn’t healthy.”
In August, Human Rights First issued a report on the anti-gay “propaganda” law and on the state of LGBT rights in Russia called “Convenient Targets.”
Since 2006, it says, 10 regional legislative bodies have adopted laws prohibiting the “propaganda” of homosexuality but those laws have seldom been applied.
It also reports that during the first half of 2013 there were 13 beatings and one murder “motivated by anti-gay bias.” In 2012, there were 12 attacks; in 2011, three.
On a visit to inspect Sochi’s facilities in September, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dismissed concerns over the bill.
“As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied. This is the case,” said Jean-Claude Killy, who headed up the visiting IOC delegation.
There have been widespread calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in light of the anti-gay laws, but Skjellerup takes a very different view.
“I think being Sochi is a good thing – not just for me but for this human rights movement,” he said.
“It’s something that shouldn’t be there, and the fact that it came into law in 2013 is absurd.
“I don’t know what they were thinking nor what the intent is behind this. It makes no sense to me.”