Skjellerup: Gay All Black needed

BLAKE Skjellerup believes an All Black may have to declare his homosexuality before New Zealanders can fully stifle prejudice towards gay sportspeople.

The 28-year-old speed skater has become internationally recognised advocating gay sporting rights, alongside the likes of American diving great Greg Louganis. Skjellerup has been a vocal critic of what he feels are discriminatory Russian policies on the matter ahead of February's Winter Olympics at the alpine resort of Sochi.

"If there is an All Black out there who is gay," Skjellerup says, "then it is important for their own wellbeing that they are honest with themselves and live their life unshadowed by their sexuality. On the other hand, it would be helpful to sport in New Zealand if there was a charter to combat homophobia and for all major governing bodies to make statements they will support gay athletes 100 per cent so their positions in their respective sports are not placed in jeopardy."

Judging by his pen portrait on the International Skating Union website, Skjellerup loves rugby: he lists All Blacks captain Richie McCaw as his idol.

"I hope my efforts have made a difference," Skjellerup says. "When I was young I struggled to find a role model in any sport that I could identify with.

It led me to believe it was all but impossible to be gay and in sport.

"I believe the barriers are being broken down in New Zealand as more people feel comfortable coming out to their family, friends, colleagues, and teammates. People start understanding the true person, and what it means to love whomever you wish."

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently signed off on populist anti-gay propaganda legislation without hesitation. The Associated Press reported that a survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency released a week after the law was passed found 76 per cent of Russians supported it and 17 per cent opposed it. Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 but hostility toward gays remains.

Politicians backed Putin's recent vote-winning law but it was further endorsed by multiple pole vault world and Olympic champion Yelena Isinbayeva. Isinbayeva is a "mayor" of a Games village next year; an honorary but symbolic and visible role. She denied her comments the next day, saying they had been taken out of context, but that's exactly how they sounded on the audio.

Rather than acting, the International Associations of Athletics Federations put the issue in the too-hard basket, with president Lamine Diack of Senegal (where homosexuality is illegal) saying he had "no problem, whatsoever" respecting Russian law. The issue will become a powderkeg by February.

There is no guarantee Skjellerup will be selected to attend his second Olympics (his best performance at the most recent world championships was 22nd in the 1500m). However, his demands for justice and fairness remain firm.

"It was easy for me to stand up against this issue. I am proud of who I am and it is upsetting to see a country slandering that. I believe in the Olympic movement and want to do my best to champion the values of Olympism, excellence, respect and friendship.

"I have full faith in the IOC. The Olympic values champion education and peace through sport, and sport is a human right no matter your sexuality, gender or race. The Games are a celebration of excellence and diversity, and I believe they have a responsibility to educate."

Skjellerup expects that diversity to cease when it comes to creating a Pride House in Sochi. The Russian sport minister appeared to rubbish the idea and a Russian court branded it "extremist" in Time magazine.

"I am unsure of the chances," Skjellerup says. "The Pride House during the 2010 Vancouver Games was instrumental to my 'coming out'. It helped me bridge the gap between Blake the Olympian, and Blake who also happens to be gay."

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