US former tennis champion Billie Jean King says she now believes that athletes should think twice about protesting for LGBT rights at next month’s Sochi Winter Olympics.
King, who will be part of the official US delegation, cited Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which bans political demonstrations by participants at the Games.
“I don’t want any athlete getting in trouble, although I think they should do anything they want,” King told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “Before I knew about Rule 50, I thought it would be sweet to wave some flags or something. But they can get in big trouble and have their medal taken away and also be sent home.”
In a significant move it was also revealed that the US would not be sending any senior political representatives to the event for the first time since 2000.
Despite the controversy regarding Russia’s attitude to LGBT rights, King was keen to accept the offer of being included in the US Olympic delegation.
“It took about 10 seconds,” King said. “It sends a strong message that America is very diverse. We are here, and surrogates as athletes and gay athletes. We reflect part of America. Maybe we’ll be a voice for people who don’t feel they can be a voice yet.”
She’ll be joined on the delegation by two openly gay former Olympic athletes — figure skater Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
King said she’ll walk in the opening ceremony, attend ice hockey and figure skating events and meet US athletes during her three-day visit to the Games.
“I’m all excited about meeting different athletes and watching them do what they do,” King told AP in a phone interview from her home in New York. “The Olympics is foremost about the athletes coming together, and they have worked so hard for this moment to be representing their country and competing.
“That’s the essence of what it’s about.”
“Maybe we’ll help the LGBT community in Russia, I hope there will be a connection for them and help them not feel alone and disenfranchised,” King continued: “Personally, I hope it helps the movement take another step forward so people will realise we’re just like everybody else. It should be a non-issue. It’s just like people of colour in our country and other places, it has to be a non-issue.”
“I just think it’s important that we’re seen and we’re out and we’re free,” King said. “I hope that I’ll meet people, maybe in Russia, who are concerned and have discussions. There’s nothing like meeting people in person and just listening to them and exchanging information and building relationships.”
As an 18-year-old, King played tennis in Russia and returned several times throughout her career.
“The Russian people have always been so wonderful to me, personally,” she added.
Attempting to dismiss concerns about LGBT athletes attending February’s Winter Olympics, President Putin in November declared he was against “hatred” towards people of a “non-traditional sexual orientation” – whilst continuing to support the country’s homophobic legislation.
A federal bill banning gay “propaganda” was signed into law by President Putin in June.
It prescribes fines for providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of 18 – ranging from 4,000 roubles (£78) for an individual to 1m roubles (£19,620) for organisations.
Last week, Russian authorities confirmed that special protest zones will be set up at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Putin said protests would be allowed but that they must be organised in advance with the federal security service, the FSB.