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Gazette Premium Content RAMSEY: American Olympic athletes should discard the umbrella of safe silence

By David Ramsey Updated: August 23, 2013 at 11:14 am

American runner Nick Symmonds dared to speak in a bold, dissenting voice last week against what he sees as an injustice. This is a grand American tradition. Bold, dissenting voices gave birth to our nation.

After winning a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Moscow, Symmonds attacked Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, which was signed in June by President Vladimir Putin.

"All humans deserve equality as God made them," Symmonds said as he dedicated his medal to his gay friends. "Whether you're gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights."

Symmonds made a courageous stand.

Figure skaters at this week's Champs Camp at World Arena chose a more polite approach. Their timidity disappoints, even as it fails to surprise. In 2008, American athletes were virtually silent about human rights abuses in China as the Beijing Games approached.

This hush-hush approach to the 2008 Games always seemed suspicious. The U.S. Olympic Committee insisted they demanded silence from no one in 2008, but almost everyone was silent.

Skater Joshua Farris seemed on the verge of speaking out Wednesday, but caught himself.

"I don't want to share too much about it," he said. "I was told to be careful."

Farris declined to name the person who told him to be careful. He did say the person worked for the USOC.

The USOC is not the only culprit. Another source told me many of the skaters' agents have encouraged caution. Agents have their minds on collecting a mountain of cash for themselves and their clients, and controversy fails to sell.

And this law is controversial, partially because Russian leaders continue to toss gasoline on the issue. On Sunday, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the problem was invented by "the mass media of the West." Ah, sure, Vitaly. Complain about that wicked and free mass media, and all your problems will depart.

The law is vague, and that's part of the problem. Russians can be fined 5,000 rubles for promoting "a nontraditional sexual setup." Foreign visitors can be sent to jail for 15 days for the same offense. It's unclear if Olympic athletes will be considered foreign visitors.

Skater Jeremy Abbott, a Cheyenne Mountain grad, believes keeping his views to himself is a way of being respectful to Russia.

"Russia is hosting us," Abbott said. "They're our host country and I'm not going into somebody's house and say, 'The way you decorate is hideous and you need to redo this or I'm never coming back.' It's a little bit rude. I don't want to say bad things about a country that is hosting the world."

Here's the problem: If nobody is rude, nothing changes.

Athletes, whether they skate across the ice or ski down a mountain or throw a football, tend to suffer from tunnel vision. Their world is defined by their sport.

So, it's not a requirement for an athlete to offer an opinion on the political climate in Russia.

But skaters kept saying they had a viewpoint, but chose silence. They want to skate along on smooth ice. Voicing dissent might deliver some pesky bumps.

Skater Evan Lysacek, who won gold in 2010, talked of the joys of unity.

"There's nothing that I want to say personally," he said of the new Russian law, "but I think it's important at a time like this for us to have one unified voice as a nation and as a team and I'll leave that up to the USOC to comment. I think it's best if we let them be the sole voice. . We're their team and we stand under their umbrella."

Unity in silence is one approach, but there's a better way.

Symmonds displayed the courage to depart the safety of the umbrella and stand alone in the cleansing rain. There's nothing more American than that.

-

Twitter: @davidramz

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