Athletes Face Challenges in Speaking Out Against Russia's Anti-Gay Laws

The IOC and Russian officials have discouraged athletes from making political statements at the Olympics.

Activists participate at a protest against Russia's new law on gays, in central London, Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.
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Millions are expected to descend on the Russian town of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and more than a few of them are concerned about Russian laws that limit the rights of gays and lesbians.

[READ: Russia's Anti-Gay Laws Become Part of Olympic Narrative]

With the Russian government doubling down on enforcing the laws, the International Olympic Committee washing its hands of the matter and corporate sponsors stuck in a quandary, attention has now turned to the competing athletes and how they choose to speak out against the laws, which among other things ban the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." And many have already done so.

"Athletes have made it very clear that they want to go to the Olympics and that they want to make it an opportunity to speak out rather than walk out," says Andre Banks, the executive director of the LGBT group All Out.

However, even for athletes adamantly supportive of LGBT rights, the choice to speak out on the issue is not so simple. The IOC has said it will not get involved with Russia's anti-gay laws and has warned athletes not to make any political statements.

"I think it's a complicated landscape given the IOC's language on athletes taking political action or making a demonstration," says Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, which mobilizes straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBT community. "It creates a climate so that speaking out about LGBT laws needs to be done carefully."

The Olympic Charter specifically bans political demonstration "in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." This means not just on the podium, but possibly in the Olympic Village and the qualifying events leading up to the games.

"For us the challenge is what kind of action items can we encourage athletes to do that will not jeopardize their ability to compete or lead to the IOC taking away their medals," Taylor says.

[ALSO: Russia Says It Will Enforce Anti-Gay Laws at Sochi Olympics]

Political demonstrations - and their consequences – are not without precedent at the Olympics. In 1968, two African-American track Olympic medalists were expelled from the games after they raised their fists in a black power salute from the podium.

The Olympic Charter also prohibits discrimination of any kind, a principle activists and athletes want to call out.. "That is a statement and a sentiment that is part of the Olympic charter so it is not inherently political," Taylor says.

Pride House International is promoting a campaign in which Olympic athletes and attendees hold hands with the opposite sex – a gesture that is banned by the Russian propaganda laws. It's a seemingly harmless gesture, but activists say it points out the contradiction between Russia's "propaganda" ban and the Olympic's prohibition of discrimination.

"We now have a climate that showing same sex attraction can be seen as a political statement," Taylor says."

And athletes face consequences not just from the IOC, but possibly Russian authorities.

Dmitry Kozak, the Russian official in charge of preparations for the Games, warned, "If people of traditional sexual orientation spread propaganda of non-traditional sex to children, then they will also be held accountable,"

Taylor worries this could mean fines, arrest or deportation. "On the ground in Russia who knows what going to happen," he says.

In the months leading up to the Olympic Games, athletes may have to address the issues, whether they want to or not. This week, an NPR reporter asked Russian-born Washington Capitals hockey player Alex Ovechkin what he thought of the laws, despite the Capitols' publicist insistence that the topic was off limits.

Typically, athletes turn to their agents and sports management companies for media training. Scott Kirkpatrick of Chicago Sports and Entertainment says to his knowledge, none of the firm's athletes have been approached about the topic yet, but generally speaking "Our counsel is to try to reduce the number of distractions in any way they can."