Credit: Scott Wooledge

An official Winter Olympics countdown event was disrupted in New York City’s Times Square on Tuesday by gay rights activists protesting Russia’s anti-gay laws. At the 100 Day Countdown, U.S. hopefuls heard chants calling for the United States Olympic Committee to boycott the Games in Sochi. As the publicized media hour began, members of the activist group Queer Nation lined a crowd barrier and unfurled banners with the words “Don’t Buy Putin’s Lies!” and “Boycott Homophobia!” — and chanted while four athletes were interviewed on stage.

On Monday, Russian President Vladmir Putin assured the International Olympic Committee that the host country would make the athletes and guests feel comfortable in Sochi “regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation.” Contacted after the Times Square demonstration, Queer Nation member Andrew Miller noted that the group is working with more than three dozen LGBT Russian activists, supports a boycott of all Russian goods and services and believes international events including the Olympics should not be held in Russia, and sent EW the following statement: “By buying into Putin’s hollow attempts to pacify his international critics, the International and United States Olympics Committees are complicit in the arrests, jailings, beatings, rapes, and murders of LGBT Russians that Putin’s anti-LGBT laws have engendered. Clearly, we’ve succeeded in embarrassing Putin by forcing him to make such hollow assurances. But if Putin wants gay men and lesbians to feel welcome in Russia, he must overturn his country’s anti-gay laws. The real issue is the Russian LGBT community, not Olympic athletes and tourists.”

EW spoke with three of those athletes who’d had their interviews interrupted at the event. Billy Demong, a four-time Olympian who became the first American athlete to win gold in Nordic Combined in Vancouver, understood the timing of the protest. “Obviously it would be nice if they waited, but then they wouldn’t have the platform,” he said. “We live in a free country, and this is also an opportunity for them to voice some of their concerns about what’s happening overseas. As an older athlete, I know enough to allow them to do their thing but focus on what I’m here to do and say.” That will be his mind-set in Sochi, if/when he qualifies for his fifth Olympics in December: “Certainly I have opinions about a lot of things, but I have to remember what my role is: I’m an athlete, and I’m here to compete, train, and do my very best for the United States at the Olympics.”

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

That’s a sentiment similar to the one Julie Chu, who’s won three Olympic medals with the U.S. women’s hockey team, expressed: “I think that there’s always going to be moments where people have issues with different things, but for us, we’re here to play hockey. That’s what we do best,” she said. “The IOC and USOC are making sure that everyone is welcomed at the Games. And what I love about the Olympics is it’s not supposed to be dividing anyone. It’s not supposed to be exclusive — it’s about inclusion. I think in Sochi that’s what we’re going to see, and we’re so excited about that.”

Bobsledder Steven Holcomb, who piloted the U.S. to its first four-man gold since 1948 at the Vancouver Games and is looking to compete in his third Olympics, admitted it’s a difficult position for the athletes to be in. “I know the hard work we put in for so long, so to have people tell you that you suck [for wanting to compete] — why? What did I do to you? I’ve just been working my butt off. This isn’t my fight. Why do you gotta insult the athletes? We’re doing the best that we can to represent the country the best that we can, and in that manner, I think that’s what we need to do: We need to represent the United States. You know, we represent those guys [motions to where the demonstrators had stood]. And we’re gonna go over there and dominate the Olympic Games and show them how good we are,” he said. “I understand it’s a tough situation. I don’t disagree. But at the same time, I don’t think [the U.S. boycotting the Games] will do anything. The Russians don’t care if we don’t come. They’d be more than happy for us to not show up, trust me. I guarantee the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3 Russian bobsledders would love it if the Americans didn’t show up, because they are scared to death of us on the track. If you reverse the roles a little bit, imagine in 2002 if Russia said, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna come [to the Salt Lake City Games] because you guys are so openly gay.’ Do you think the Americans would have said, ‘Ohmygod, we should probably boycott homosexuality and let the Russians come’? We’d have been like, ‘Fine, then don’t come. This is who we are.’ There’s nothing we can do about it.”