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Brian Boitano, a member of the U.S. Olympic delegation, talks to San Jose Mercury News' Mark Purdy a the Radisson hotel in Sochi, Russia on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

SOCHI, Russia -- This was not as easy as Brian Boitano made it look.

He stood on the balcony of a seaside hotel here Friday, dressed in a sharp gray suit with necktie and looked almost ... well, presidential.

Which was fitting. He is part of President Barack Obama's official delegation to the Sochi Olympics. There he and others who looked the part were standing alongside each other on the balcony. There was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. There was a former cabinet member. There was a White House aide. There was another former Olympic athlete who happens to be gay.

And there was Boitano.

"We feel very strongly about our message: tolerance and diversity," Boitano said to a small group of reporters. "But I don't feel like we need to say anything, really. Everyone knows why we're here. People get it."

Boitano, a Sunnyvale native and San Francisco resident who won an Olympic figure skating gold medal in 1988, was smooth and polished. But in a one-on-one conversation inside the hotel after the balcony session, Boitano acknowledged that this isn't really his thing. He might wear a suit and tie five times a year. Until recently, he had never ventured into the political waters of gay rights in public.

In fact, until two months ago, he was not officially out as a gay man.


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"This is a different direction for me," Boitano said. "It's something I never anticipated. But when I agreed to it, I knew what it would mean."

Of course he did. Everyone did. When Obama decided not to attend the Sochi Games, likely for security concerns, he chose to send a message rather than send himself. Russia has a law against spreading "gay propaganda," and many of the nation's politicians, including President Vladimir Putin, support the law -- even if it's rather unclear what it means to "spread gay propaganda." Basically, the law allows police to intimidate the gay community at will.

In response, therefore, Obama delegated several high-profile gay former athletes as his representatives here. Billie Jean King, the former tennis star, was one. Caitlin Cahow, a former U.S. hockey Olympian, was another.

Boitano, too, had tentatively accepted the president's invitation. But in December, he was on a European trip when the news broke prematurely. Reports implied that Boitano was selected because he was gay, although he'd never publicly acknowledged that. His friends and family knew. He just preferred to keep it quiet to the larger world, if only to make his life simpler.

When the delegation appointment story surfaced, however, Boitano had two options. He finally could publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation. Or he could withdraw from the delegation.

"I could stick with the privacy route," said Boitano, who had 48 hours to decide. "But it just didn't feel right. You know, look at this platform. This is huge. This is worth it for getting past the privacy stance."

But now that he's here, what does his commitment mean? More or less, it means he is now Mr. Famous Gay Ex-Athlete Shaking Hands While Attempting To Make An Important Subliminal Point. Which is this: America has all sorts of great sports competitors. Some are gay, some are straight. They are of different skin colors. But all of them make the USA a better team and a better nation.

"Ultimately, it would be great to change perceptions," Boitano said when asked for his main goal here. Then he paused.

"I don't even know what the average Russian's perception of this is," he said. "It's kind of hard to get a sense for that. I know what my friends in Moscow have told me. But not here."

That's the only unfortunate part, Boitano said. Because of all his official handshaking, he won't be able to go out and visit local neighborhoods or mix with many Russian citizens.

The delegation's schedule is tight. Members arrived here Thursday. They leave Sunday. They go from event to event. Thursday night, they attended a USA flag-raising ceremony at the Olympic Village, then visited a Team Great Britain reception hosted by Princess Anne. Friday, there was a State Department briefing, then a session with USA athletes before the Opening Ceremony. Saturday, the delegation was scheduled to visit competition sites to root on American athletes. Members will leave the next day.

Boitano, therefore, will almost surely not be visiting one of Sochi's two or three gay bars -- unlike one gay politician from Canada who showed up at one as a show of solidarity. Boitano said he is not a hanging-out-at-gay-bars sort of guy, regardless.

"But if a group is going to go there, I might," Boitano said.

If athletes stage some sort of gay-rights demonstration while he's here, Boitano said he might also attend. At the same time, he noted, such demonstrations by athletes are banned in the Olympic charter.

If Boitano's attitude appears to be remarkably healthy, it's perhaps the result of his upbringing, which he says was free of taunting or bullying or parental disapproval.

"I never got made fun of," Boitano said. "Everybody was supportive, family and friends. You know, my dad was a semipro baseball player. When I told him I wanted to give up baseball and go skate, he said, 'All right, let's go.' "

But what about when Boitano was a teenager at now-defunct Peterson High at Sunnyvale? What about when he was rising to fame and the gold medal? Perhaps because of his athleticism and his status, Boitano avoided the low tides endured by some gay men.

"I wasn't conflicted," he said. "I'm not that guy."

But what about when he became more famous? Once more, it didn't become an issue because he chose not to make it one.

"All the guys were straight that I skated with," Boitano said. "I think when I did the Champion on Ice Tour after the Olympics, I think I was one of only two gay guys on the tour. This just wasn't what we talked about."

He is talking about it now, though. Networks are lining up to interview Boitano, both here and when he returns to the States. He is receiving numerous invitations to speak on gay rights. He might be wearing that suit and tie a lot more often than he expected.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com.

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