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Who To Watch As Sochi Approaches

Here are some of the athletes, advocates, and LGBT activists who will be part of the international conversation about sports and human rights.

1. Johnny Weir

AP / LEHTIKUVA, Antti Almo-Kolvisto

Whether or not he actually skates in Sochi, Weir (a sixth-place finisher in Vancouver) plans to be a constant presence in and around the Olympic scene. He made that abundantly clear in a recent interview with Canadian television, and he, more than any other athlete in the world right now, has the chance to become the primary face and voice of the LGBT rights movement on the ground as the Games are in progress. He even went so far recently as saying he’s willing to be arrested in Russia in order to make a point about his commitment to LGBT equality.

2. Nikolai Alexeyev

Denis Tyrin / AP

Nikolai Alexeyev is arguably the most visible LGBT activist in Russia. He’s led efforts for Moscow Pride since 2005 and has been beaten, harassed, and arrested several times as a result. In May 2012, Alexeyev became the first person to be arrested under St. Petersburg’s anti-gay propaganda law after holding a sign that said “Homosexuality is not a perversion” in front of Smolny Institute. As of this week, he may soon face charges for tweeting about Russia’s state-sanctioned homophobia.

3. Ireen Wüst

Grigory Dukor / Reuters

A gold medalist in 2006 (3,000-meter speed skating) and 2010 (1,500-meter), Wüst is a national hero in her native Netherlands, where speed-skating is the most highly regarded sport of all. Wüst talked openly about her girlfriend, another Dutch speed-skater, in a 2009 TV interview, and she’ll be gunning for gold in her third consecutive Olympics. And a dominant performance at the World Championships in Sochi this past March means she may be the favorite in both events for which she’s previously won gold. That would mean lots of prime medal stand time for a show of support.

4. Andre Banks

Jorge Rivas

On Aug. 7, members of All Out, which Andre Banks co-founded, traveled to Switzerland to deliver a petition against Russia’s anti-gay laws to the IOC. The petition had more than 300,000 signatures. Twenty-four hours later, Banks showed up at the front gate of the Russian consulate in New York City to give Vitaly Churkin, Russian’s United Nations ambassador, a copy as well. As the executive director of All Out, which specifically focus on LGBT causes abroad and boats a membership of more than 1.8 million people in 190 countries, Andre Banks may well prove to be one of the loudest American voices in the outcry against Russia’s anti-gay law.

5. Blake Skjellerup

Alex Livesey / Getty Images

A gay speed-skater from New Zealand, the 28-year-old Skjellerup came out a few months after the Vancouver Olympics and he’s been among the most vocal of non-American Olympians. He’s openly critical of Russia’s policies and plans to wear a rainbow pin while in competition. That could make for some compelling moments on the ice and off, whether or not he wins a medal.

6. Harvey Fierstein

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

“Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, has declared war on homosexuals,” wrote Harvey Fierstein in his July 21 New York Times op-ed. For many Americans, the Tony award-winning playwright and actor’s essay turned a controversy in another country into an outrage demanding immediate action. Fierstein has since challenged the IOC and U.S. government to prove their commitment to rebuking a law he argues is reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany.

7. Vibeke Skofterud

Being a cross-country gold medalist in Norway already turns you into something of a national name, and Skofterud (who’s been out since 2008) is making every preparation to get herself back atop the medal stand as part of her country’s 4×5-kilometer relay team. She shut down her season six months ago so as to be in stellar shape in time for Sochi, and her outgoing personality and potential for repeat gold makes her a perfect focal point.

8. Hudson Taylor

Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

Hudson Taylor, a former high school and college wrestler, created Athlete Ally to show support for LGBT athletes and address issues like the ones being raised in Russia. As he said during a recent CNN interview, “When we have an athletic competition as high profile as the Winter Olympics being hosted by a country that violates human rights everyday, it’s in direct opposition to everything that we’re fighting for.” Though gay Olympic athletes themselves may be pressured by the IOC and, of course, the Russian government to refrain from speaking out in Sochi, Hudson Taylor will be speaking up for them.

9. A Popular (Straight) American Athlete

Clive Mason / Getty Images

Here’s what many supporters are hoping for: That one unexpected moment where a straight American mega-Olympian of some import — maybe it’s bobsledder Lolo Jones, skier Lindsey Vonn (above), speed-skater Shani Davis, snowboarder Shaun White, or pretty much any hockey player — makes a public gesture, preferably on a medal stand or in an interview, in clear support for LGBT athletes and against what’s happening with Russian policies. Let’s be clear: Someone will do this at some point and that person will become an instant hero to millions. Who it will be is still an open question for now.

10. Patrick Burke

“History remembers the athletes who showed up,” wrote Patrick Burke in his July 24 op-ed on BuzzFeed urging LGBT Olympians and allies to show up in Sochi. The You Can Play Project, which Burke co-founded, works to end homophobia in sports and has had stunning results with sports leaders and organizations in the U.S. In many ways, Russia’s anti-gay law and the Winter Olympics in Sochi are a tailor-made issue for You Can Play.

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