Obama: ‘If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, it’ll probably make their team weaker’

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US President Barack Obama has continued his criticism of Russia’s anti-gay laws by arguing that a completely straight sports team is weaker than an inclusive team. He rejected calls for the United States to boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

At a press conference in the White House, Mr Obama said: “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, it’ll probably make their team weaker.”

The president added though: “I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics.”

Earlier this week, in an interview with Jay Leno on NBC’s Tonight Show, President Obama was asked about the implementation of homophobic censorship laws in Russia.

The president replied saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

Russia has said it will enforce the legislation when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

“Do you think it will affect the Olympics?” Leno asked President Obama.

He replied: “Every judgement should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

He added: “I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”

But the president was careful to avoid singling out Russia, pointing out that many leaders he meets with support similar legislation in their nations.

“When I travelled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians. And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes.”

Today a spokesman for British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has reiterated the British government’s position in opposing Russia’s policy.

It reinforced what Mr Clegg said last month in an interview with PinkNews, when he said: “It is just totally out of order it is unacceptable in this day and age for any athlete to feel in any way intimidated or certainly to be discriminated against because of their sexuality.”

Speaking to PinkNews today, a spokesman for Mr Clegg said: “At a time when many countries around the world are making incredible steps forward for equality, it’s worrying and depressing that Russia can take such a step backward.

“The world spotlight is now on Russia, and the government is working with the IOC to ensure the games are free from discrimination. But this is also an issue much wider than the Olympic Games. There are horrific stories of abuse, brutality and discrimination that should not be tolerated.

“As Nick Clegg has said before, it is totally unacceptable for anyone to feel intimidated or discriminated against because of their sexuality.

“Those days should be long behind us now and those governments and regimes who don’t see it that way have to move with the times.”

The 2014 Winter Olympics takes place in the Russian city of Sochi in February.

Concerns have been expressed by human rights organisations over the deteriorating situation for LGBT people in Russia, and some have called for a boycott of the Games.

It’s feared that the authorities in Sochi may seek to arrest, deport or possibly fine LGBT athletes if they are deemed to be “promoting” LGBT expression.

Pride House, an Olympic LGBT event, has already been banned from the Winter Olympics by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

The arrival of draconian homophobic censorship laws has been coupled with an increase in homophobic attacks and killings.

Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk in July, Mr Clegg urged Russia to “move with the times” when it came to LGBT rights.

Earlier today Simon Kirby, the Tory MP for Brighton Kemptown and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Sport and Tourism, urged Foreign Secretary William Hague to “lead in the international condemnation of the Russian Government’s treatment of LGBT people.” 

On Thursday, Conservative MP Mike Freer told PinkNews.co.uk that he would like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to consider moving the 2014 Winter Olympics from Russia.

Following Stephen Fry’s open letter to David Cameron on Wednesday, in which he urged the Prime Minister and the IOC to strip Russia of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the government responded by saying it was working closely with organisers to ensure the Games were free from discrimination.

Prime Minister David Cameron has so far not commented publicly on the matter, but US President Obama spoke out against anti-gay legislation in Russia on NBC’s Tonight Show on Tuesday.

Speaking to PinkNews.co.uk on Thursday, Labour’s Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for Human Rights, Kerry McCarthy, said: “The UK Government should be using the opportunity of the G20 meeting in St Petersburg next month to raise this issue with President Putin and make clear the UK’s opposition to the latest examples of repression and discrimination.”

Last week, along with criticism of Russia’s LGBT stance by the UK Foreign Office, a government source told PinkNews.co.uk that they anticipated the issue of homophobic oppression in Russia would be raised at September’s G20 Heads of Government meeting.