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Blake Skjellerup of New Zealand competes in the men's 1,000 meters at the Vancouver Winter Olympics at Pacific Coliseum on February 17, 2010. / Alex Livesey Getty Images

New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup is focused on making his second Olympic team. He got a taste of what to expect at the Winter Olympics, which begin one year from today, at a recent race in Sochi, Russia.

But he's also concerned about the anti-gay legislation working its way through the Russian parliament. After competing in the 2010 Vancouver Games, Skjellerup publicly acknowledged he's gay.

The bill, which is expected to pass, would outlaw "homosexual propaganda" making public events that promote gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples illegal. St. Petersburg and a number of other Russian cities already have similar laws.

A call to the Russian Embassy seeking comment was not returned.

"I don't want to have to tone myself down about who I am," Skjellerup said. "That wasn't very fun and there's no way I'm going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble."

Given the growing homophobia, openly gay Olympic athletes and others hoping to attend the Games have reason for concern. But U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir, a self-described "Russophile" who hopes to compete in his third Olympics in Sochi, isn't worried.

Weir is beloved in Russia. His close friend is the nation's biggest figure skating star, Evgeni Plushenko. He speaks Russian. And he's married to a man, Victor Voronov, whose parents grew up in the former Soviet Union.

"I love Russia and there is nothing that will change that," Weir said. "I'm a true patriot and spokesperson for their country. It's appalling they can censor their public, but I try to do everything I can. I have been in talks with different LBGT organizations in Russia with how I can help."

When Weir and his husband were in Moscow last November for a competition, they posted pictures of themselves online sharing a kiss at various places in the city. Weir also acknowledged he's treated differently because of the country's appreciation of his skating.

If he makes the Olympic team, Weir doesn't want to make an issue of his sexuality, he said. For him, the Olympics should be about sport and competition. But he does have advice for gay athletes unfamiliar with the culture.

"My advice would be: Watch what you do when you leave the Village, don't be aggressive, don't wear a big rainbow flag fur coat. If you don't call attention to yourself, attention won't come to you."

Then Weir added, in a way only he can, "I'm not going to be having sex in a Metro station. And if you are doing that, then maybe you deserve to be caught."

Cultural crackdown

The Sochi Winter Olympics are expected to be unlike any other. For starters, Sochi is a resort town on the Black Sea. On Tuesday, it was 65 degrees.

Culturally, it's also a sea change from the last two Olympics - the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London.

Vancouver and London hosted a Pride House for gay fans and athletes. A gay-rights group in Russia had hoped to host a Pride House locale in Sochi, but members say they were banned from doing so by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

Though it's hard to imagine a gay Olympian being arrested for wearing a rainbow pin, will athletes be worried about the impact of homophobia at a time when they should be focused on competition?

The U.S. Olympic Committee declined to comment when asked if officials planned to address such concerns with athletes before the Games.

"I had my girlfriend with me in London," said soccer player Megan Rapinoe, whose U.S. team won the Olympic gold medal last summer. "If I was just a gay fan going to Sochi, I don't know. If the law passes, I would definitely be breaking the law. Hopefully it won't deter gay athletes from being who they are." Weeks before the London Games, Rapinoe came out as a lesbian.

Russia's cultural crackdown on gay rights has grabbed headlines the last few months. When Lady Gaga spoke out for gay rights at a concert in St. Petersburg, a conservative politician wanted to prosecute the singer for breaking the law. Madonna was sued by conservative activists after a concert, though a St. Petersburg court threw out the case. In December, a supporters group for Zenit Saint Petersburg urged the soccer club not to sign black or gay players.

In 2018, Russia will host the World Cup. But first, the country will be scrutinized for how it handles the Olympics and its melting pot of races, religions and sexual orientation.

In 2010, Skjellerup dropped by the first Olympic Pride House, a place for visitors to learn more about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sports movement and celebrate the Games. As he walked through an exhibit featuring gay college athletes, the moment changed his life. It inspired him to publicly come out.

"It was a huge determining factor to let me share my story," he said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people that are in the same situation I was in Vancouver, and they won't have that experience in Sochi."

Outsports.com counted 23 openly gay and lesbian athletes at the London Games last summer, with presumably many more out to their teammates, friends and family.

The International Olympic Committee has said it is not responsible for the various national or special interest houses common during the Olympics, so it has no influence on the Pride House ban.

IOC spokesperson Sandrine Tonge said in an email that it is too early for the IOC to comment on Russia's proposed anti-gay legislation because it has not been voted on.

"But the IOC would like to reiterate its long commitment to non-discrimination against those taking part in the Olympic Games," Tonge wrote. "The IOC is an open organisation and athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games."

International concern

The Federation of Gay Games, which administers the Gay Games and was involved with setting up London's Pride House, has grown increasingly frustrated with the IOC.

"The IOC is very happy to claim victories when good things happen and say that they are not involved when bad things happen," said Marc Naimark, the Federation of Gay Games vice president for external affairs. "There's a great history with the reaction of worldwide sport to apartheid with the exclusion of South Africa from international sport, and that's something the IOC should be very proud of. But they don't seem interested in repeating it when it comes to countries that discriminate against women or gays and lesbians.

"When they choose a country that's homophobic, they send a message to the world and to gay athletes, among those messages is, 'if you're not out, stay in the closet.'"

Last fall, the FGG declined an invitation to attend the annual Peace and Sport conference, which was held in Sochi, when local officials couldn't guarantee the safety of the federation's delegate.

Even if the IOC chooses not to weigh in on homophobia in Russia, there's growing international opposition. Two weeks ago, the U.S. State Department expressed concern about the Russian Duma's draft legislation that would restrict rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

The European Union also has weighed in. Catherine Ashton, a representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, wrote that implementing the law could reinforce discrimination against the LGBT community.

Rapinoe called Russia's anti-gay stance, from its prosecution and conviction of members of the punk band Pussy Riot to the current laws in place, "outrageous." The lack of outcry from the sporting world is troubling as well.

"What year are we in? People are still being arrested for saying it's OK to be gay?" she said. "What is the IOC or major sponsors doing, if anything?"



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Sochi Olympics will test gay rights

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