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Brian Boitano skates at Izod Center on Dec. 11 in East Rutherford, N.J. Boitano will go to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as part of the presidential delegation. (Getty)

Figure Skater Brian Boitano On Coming Out And Going To Sochi

by NPR Staff
Jan 2, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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When the White House named the delegation President Obama plans to send to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, many took it as a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Absent were any high-ranking U.S. officials: The president is too busy to attend, the White House said. But on the list were prominent LGBT athletes, which many took as a clear rebuke of Russia's controversial anti-gay laws.

Brian Boitano, who won the 1988 gold medal for figure skating, is one of the delegates, though he didn't come out as gay until two days after the White House released the names of the people who would represent the U.S.

"If you would have told me five minutes before the press release came out that I was going to come out, I would have said you were crazy," Boitano tells All Things Considered's Audie Cornish. "I've always been a private person. But this was a time to push my comfort zone. And the message was so strong that I felt like I really needed to do it at this time."

At the height of his career in 1988, Boitano says coming out was not an option. His agent told him that he needed to keep his sexuality quiet so that he could secure endorsements. Even though he only recently came out publicly, Boitano says people in his life have known he is gay. But, he says, he wanted to be known for his skating achievements rather than his sexuality.

"I always felt that my private life was something that I would share with people who are close to me," he says. "So it will be something that I have to get used to."

Boitano will join hockey player Caitlin Cahow and tennis champion Billie Jean King in Sochi in February. Both Cahow and King are openly gay. Others in the U.S. delegation include former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and presidential adviser Rob Nabors.

The U.S. Olympic Committee recently revised its nondiscrimination policy to specifically include sexual orientation.

Many gay-rights supporters have called on the U.S. to boycott the 2014 games to show disapproval for the anti-gay legislation. But Boitano says that isn't the right tactic. He points to the boycott President Jimmy Carter organized of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to oppose the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

"It was devastating for many, many athletes who have worked their life for this one moment in sports," Boitano says. "So that's why I think that delegations like the presidential delegation that I'm on are important. ... Let the athletes focus on what they're doing and the job at hand. And let athletes like me, Billie Jean and Caitlin stand up for them and represent the gay community."

Boitano says he hasn't planned to make a statement when he goes to Sochi beyond being present. And that, he says, is statement enough.

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