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Opinion

August 12, 2013

Column: Winter Olympics could use a gay icon

Six months before the flame is supposed to be lit at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a crisis threatens to snuff it out.

The Olympic spirit is ostensibly about inclusion and friendship. The Olympic charter calls sport a human right, “without discrimination of any kind.” At their best, the Olympics show us the power of that ideal, memorably 77 years ago when Jesse Owens stood tall in Nazi Germany. Can Johnny Weir be the Owens for a new century?

The current furor stems from a Russian law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The law is being used to discriminate against homosexuals.

President Barack Obama had strong words this week, saying on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” that he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

But the United States is limited in what pressure it can bring, especially while embroiled in a dispute with the Russian government over NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t mind awarding its prized games to countries with questionable records on human rights and then tap-dancing. Watching Jacques Rogge soft-shoe individual freedoms in China was embarrassing.

The IOC claims to be working behind the scenes. But Russia’s sports minister has insisted the law will be enforced.

The idea of a boycott is patently absurd. We found that out in 1980. All it does is hurt the athletes, robbing them of a once-in-a-lifetime dream.

Johnny Weir, who is married to a man of Russian descent, is adamantly against a boycott. The figure skater is an example of how the world is changing. In Turin in 2006, Weir declined to state his sexual orientation. He is now a spokesman for gay rights.

The Olympics are about youth. The Games’ power stems from the world’s young athletes standing side by side. A sea change on sexual rights has occurred around the globe, and this generation won’t tolerate discrimination.

Convoluted politics and the backward IOC may not solve this crisis. But young athletes rising up together probably can.

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Ann Killion is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

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