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Original Issue

To Russia, With Love

At the Olympics, members of visiting nations often try to impose their political beliefs on the host. This, in my view, is wrong: Athletes are there to compete, not to protest. But when a host country enacts laws that crush basic human rights, those of us in the Olympic movement must speak up.

In June the Russian parliament passed a bill criminalizing public expressions deemed to be "pro-gay." These acts include marching in a gay pride parade, displaying a rainbow flag—even holding hands in public with someone of the same sex. For any of those "crimes" a person can spend up to two weeks in prison.

An atmosphere of intolerance has long existed in Russia. On the streets LGBT people are harassed, intimidated and arrested by police, who have also been known to look the other way when antigay violence occurs. Perversely, this is being done in the name of morality: Russian president Vladimir Putin says the antigay laws are intended to protect the innocence of children.

I have been publicly and vocally pro-gay since 2007, when my youngest son, Brendan, came out to our family. I have tried to do what every parent should: support my son. Brendan and I did interviews together talking about the importance of LGBT acceptance in sports. Three years ago we lost Brendan, tragically, in an accident at 21, and since then our family has fought hard to carry on his message of love and inclusivity. We have marched in pride parades, spoken at events and donated time and energy in support of young LGBT people.

All these activities are now illegal in Sochi, the city that will host the Winter Olympics, where I will be with the U.S. hockey team. Russia has criminalized my ability to be a father and our ability to be a family.

You don't have to be gay to care about this. You don't have to have a gay son or daughter to recognize an organized effort by a government to target and destroy a minority group. History has taught us that, left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness.

Many people have called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. But boycotts punish the athletes who have worked so hard to make the team. Instead, I will proudly represent the U.S., USA Hockey and the You Can Play Project, which is dedicated to ending homophobia in sports. It encourages athletes to speak out against antigay rhetoric, to support LGBT teammates and to change a culture that is often homophobic. I will be doing all this, and I will be publicly pro-gay. I am calling on other governing bodies, staffs, coaches and athletes to join me.

Last week Russia assured the IOC that it would not discriminate against homosexuals during the Games—but it did not back down from the enforcement of its new laws, even if that means prosecuting athletes. The IOC must push Russia to guarantee the safety of all competitors, coaches and officials, and their immunity from these laws. LGBT athletes such as American figure skater Johnny Weir and New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup must be able to compete without fear of harassment. Russia must also ensure the safety and immunity of all Olympic visitors: media, guests and the families of the athletes.

I hope athletes of all sexualities and nationalities will recognize the injustices being perpetrated upon innocent people in Russia. I hope they realize that if they join voices, they can effect change. So, Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, "I am pro-gay." When you gather your winter clothes, know that You Can Play will happily outfit any Olympic athlete with complimentary You Can Play merchandise.

The pressure to do what's right shouldn't end with the closing ceremony. The IOC, USOC and each sport's governing bodies should refuse to stage future international competitions in Russia until these outrageous laws are repealed. That is the boycott I'm calling for.

Russia has made the organization founded in honor of my son illegal, and it has attempted to silence our family. We refuse to recognize its right to do so. The cruel and misguided legislation will fail—laws based on ignorance, bias and bigotry always do. But until they are repealed, the LGBT citizens of Russia will suffer horribly. It's time for all of us to stand in support of them.

Brian Burke is the director of player personnel for the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team and an advisory board member for the You Can Play Project.

Would you support a U.S. boycott of the Sochi Olympics?


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