Figure skating legend Brian Boitano gets opportunity to send message in Sochi

Figure skating legend Brian Boitano was performing in a show in the French Alps in December when he got a call from the White House that led him to tell the world something he had kept private for more than three decades of public life.

President Obama invited Boitano, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist, to represent the United States at the Sochi Winter Olympics as part of the official delegation.

The 50-year-old skater was flattered and accepted, without reservation. There was never any discussion about who else was invited or about sexual orientation.

It wasn’t until the delegation was announced the next day, and he saw who would be traveling with him — tennis icon Billie Jean King and two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlyn Cahow — that Boitano realized why he was selected and the powerful message Obama was sending to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

King and Cahow are openly gay, and clearly this delegation was meant as a symbol of American diversity, a rebuke to the seven-month-old Russian law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposes fines on people who hold gay-pride rallies.

Boitano had never discussed his sexuality publicly, but being named to the delegation made him drop his guard.

“When I asked who was on the delegation, they said they couldn’t tell me, and we never discussed the message that the president was sending,” Boitano said by phone last week. “Then I started reading on Twitter that the president was making a statement about diversity through two openly gay athletes with Billie Jean and Caitlin.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t be on the fence and be ambiguous because this message is so very important, and I need to represent it fully.’ I decided right at that moment that I needed to come out, make it official. I wanted to step off that plane with Billie Jean in a place of strength. I talked to everybody in my world, and was like, ‘It’s time. Here we go.’ ’’

He called his brother and sisters first to let them know. His father died last year. His mother was battling Alzheimer’s and died Wednesday.

“My whole family, obviously, knew I was gay, but we are a private family, so I wanted to clear it with them,’’ Boitano said. “I’ve always reserved that side of my life for people I love and care about.’’

His brother said: “I know you’re a very private person, you sure you want to divulge this?’’

He was sure.

Boitano called his longtime manager and former coach, Linda Leaver, and together they composed a news release that read, in part:

“I am many things: a son, a brother and uncle, a friend, an athlete, a cook, an author, and being gay is just one part of who I am,” he said. “First and foremost, I am an American athlete, and I am proud to live in a country that encourages diversity, openness and tolerance. As an athlete, I hope we can remain focused on the Olympic spirit which celebrates achievement in sport by peoples of all nations.”

Through all his years of competing and touring, and more recently hosting cooking and home improvement shows, Boitano had never revealed that he was gay.

“I didn’t really think of myself as ‘in’ or ‘out,’ I just thought of myself as a private person, and I’m not really sure what people assumed about me,’’ Boitano said. “I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m gay, never denied it, never been embarrassed or ashamed of it, but it’s just a special part of my life I didn’t feel like sharing with the public. I felt like my skating and my cooking are public, and my private life is private.’’

He said the reaction to his announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. He got more than 100 texts within a few hours, including some funny ones from his closest gay friends with comments like, “OMG! You’re gay?’’

Boitano said the delegation doesn’t plan to lead demonstrations in Sochi or criticize the Russian government. The delegates’ very presence at the Opening Ceremony and other official events will be a strong enough message, he said.

“Sometimes, what you don’t say is stronger than what you do say,’’ Boitano said. “Everyone knows what the delegation stands for. We’re there to say, ‘We are successful athletes and we’re gay, and it shows our country’s diversity. Different shapes, sizes, colors, straight, gay.’ ’’

King agrees.

“When we step off the plane, we are part of America. We are what America looks like,” she said on the Today show. “So I think President Obama has done an amazing job on promoting diversity and inclusion. He has been the all-time president for doing that, and he’s showing the Russians, listen, everyone belongs in the United States.”

King, 70, has referred in interviews to “a John Carlos moment,’’ referring to the U.S. sprinter who raised his fist in a black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The Russian government decriminalized homosexuality in 1993 but last year banned the distribution of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” around children.

Gay activists say the law promotes intolerance and may lead to a rise in anti-gay crime. Putin also passed a law prohibiting gay and lesbian couples in foreign countries from adopting Russian children.

Despite the laws, Putin said gay tourists and athletes should feel “at ease’’ there.

Some gay activists called for a boycott of the Games. Boitano feels that is not the way to go.

“Nobody but an athlete knows what it's like to train for 20 years for a dream and have it taken away for political reasons,’’ he said. “If we learned anything from the 1980 boycott, it’s that it doesn’t work. All you’re doing is dashing athletes’ dreams. The Olympics go on and nothing changes.’’

Boitano said he was subjected to homophobic slurs in the locker room during his career and that he felt some judges favored straight male skaters over those perceived as gay or effeminate.

“The guys I skated with were almost all straight,’’ he said. “There’s a misconception about male figure skaters that we are all gay. Most were straight that I competed against, a few were not, like the rest of the world. I just kept quiet, but it was like any locker room. There was guy talk and some gay jokes.’’

As for the judges, there were some he always hoped to avoid.

“Nobody ever said anything, but it was a feeling I got that they favored the most masculine, straight skaters,’’ he said. “Sometimes my marks would be lower than someone I beat on a regular basis, and I could think of no other reason. But it obviously didn’t prevent me from having success or winning at the Olympics.’’

After he won his gold medal in 1988, an agent suggested it would improve his marketability if he would present a more heterosexual public image.

“He told me, ‘People are wondering if you’re gay or not, so you need to make it clear you’re not,’’ Boitano recalled. “I did one interview that made me really uncomfortable where I said something about wanting to get married or have kids later, and it felt so wrong. I never did that again.’’

Now that he is out, Boitano said he expects to be called upon to be a spokesman for gay issues and participate in gay-pride events. He is not sure how public he wants to be, as he wants to maintain his privacy as much as possible.

But he is proud to be representing his full self and his country in Sochi.

“I feel like I’m representing my country in a fourth Olympics, and that feels really good,’’ he said. “First and foremost, I’m an American athlete, and there is no greater honor than being at the Olympics.’’

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