Gay ex-athletes part of delegation

2014 Winter Olympics: Gay Rights (2:27)

Openly gay former Olympians Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow talk about being part of the U.S. Olympic delegation. (2:27)

SOCHI, Russia -- He was a figure skater. She was a hockey player. Their command of the ice earned them a combined three Olympic medals, one of each color. Yet as they stood and faced reporters in brilliant springlike sunshine on a hotel patio overlooking the Black Sea, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow were, some might say, on a more slippery surface than they ever dealt with in competition.

Boitano and Cahow don't think so. They are U.S. citizens, former elite athletes and openly gay, and they are completely grounded in why those overlapping identities brought them here as members of the official U.S. delegation to the Sochi Games.

They'll attend Friday night's opening ceremony along with government officials -- U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House aide Rob Nabors -- who this week call them "colleagues." This weekend, they'll cheer for U.S. athletes at skiing and figure skating events and the U.S. versus Finland women's hockey game.

Cahow and Boitano have been outspoken about their belief in equality, diversity and tolerance since their selection by President Barack Obama was announced in mid-December, a civil but pointed response to Russia's anti-gay laws.

Friday, they listened as McFaul spoke for the U.S. government, calling Russian legislation "a reversal of human rights.'' Then Boitano and Cahow expressed themselves simply and eloquently, saying that over the next 48 hours, their mere presence in Russia is more important than anything that appears between quotation marks.

Boitano exuded a calm dignity as he spoke about representing his country in a different way than he had done in three other Winter Games.

"I think that sometimes the most powerful things are what you don't say instead of what you do say,'' he said. "We stand strong and we say: 'This is what America looks like. And here we are.'"

Boitano chose not to elaborate on his sexual identity for many years but said he wasn't hiding. Everyone he cared about knew already, and that was all that mattered.

But within an hour of seeing his name in the formal White House news release, Boitano knew he had to "make it official," as he put it. He and Linda Leaver, his manager and former coach, huddled by phone. He called his siblings. Then he told the world.

Similarly, two-time Olympian Cahow didn't try to conceal her sexual identity around friends, family and teammates at Harvard or on the U.S. national team, but she never felt the need to announce it. She first addressed it in a low-key interview in November.

Cahow -- a last-minute sub at the opening ceremony for iconic activist Billie Jean King, who stayed home to attend to her gravely ill mother -- is an avid believer in "the power of sport to uplift people." She views her role here chiefly as a high-profile supporter and fan of the U.S. team, but she also recognizes the potential impact of the trip.

"The president has made an amazing gesture by including openly LGBT athletes in the delegation, and that was his decision, I think a fantastic one," Cahow said. "It's increased dialogue about these issues all over the world.

"I'm a fairly optimistic person and I hope that it's furthered the cause. I hope it's a positive step forward. But it's difficult. You have so little control over these matters. All I can do is continue to be positive and open-minded and accepting, and hope that every person I meet, I can hand off a little bit of that to them, and hopefully we can pay this forward one person at a time if need be. I'm just happy to be here, and so far, like I said, it's been a very positive experience.''

Boitano flew to Sochi the day after his mother's funeral. He spoke movingly of traveling cross country on short notice to arrive at her bedside in time to hold her hand, kiss her gently on the neck and whisper his thanks at the end of her long battle with Alzheimer's disease. She died 20 minutes after he arrived.

It was an experience that could resonate with anyone, as he hopes this visit does. When the worldwide audience glimpses Boitano during his time in Sochi, his fondest wish is to be regarded as a whole person -- complex, strong and vulnerable -- rather than the embodiment of a cause.

That, after all, is how enlightenment happens. One family at a time accepts a gay son or daughter, a sibling, a parent, a cousin. The families become a neighborhood, a city, a region, a country, a movement. The icy slopes of the past level out.

That is what athletes call fair play.