Olympic gold medalists stood on a temporary stage in Times Square talking about training and teamwork when the chants rose up from about 50 feet away.
"Homophobia has got to go!" bellowed more than a dozen protesters who unveiled a rainbow banner reading, "Don’t Buy Putin’s Lies."
The U.S. Olympic Committee set up a mini ski slope in the tourist magnet in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday to celebrate 100 days until the Sochi Games. The very public spectacle achieved its goal of attracting the attention of the throngs of passers-by. It also allowed the group Queer Nation New York to call for a U.S. boycott of the Olympics from an adjoining sidewalk.
A recently enacted Russian law outlaws "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors." That raised fears of whether it could be applied to international athletes and fans — but also broader criticism that the International Olympic Committee should pressure the host country to repeal the law.
In Sochi, with IOC President Thomas Bach in attendance, President Vladimir Putin promised Monday that gay athletes and guests at the Winter Games will feel at ease. The IOC has said it received assurances from the Russian government that it will respect the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination of any kind at the games.
The USOC’s official stance is that it disagrees with the law but that a boycott is out of the question. The organization is seeking clarity on what will and won’t be regarded as violations of the IOC rule against using the Olympic stage to make political protests or demonstrations.
Back on American soil, U.S. athletes must decide what, if anything, to say about the issue — and they’re hearing plenty of questions about it.
Skier Bode Miller, never shy, was one of the few athletes willing to take a stand on the subject at the U.S. Olympic media summit last month featuring Sochi hopefuls. He called the law "absolutely embarrassing."
On Tuesday, the brief USOC presentation to open the Times Square event went on uninterrupted throughout the protest, which drew plenty of TV cameras away from the stage. The athletes’ comments still carried crisply over the loudspeakers, but they could clearly hear the chants.
"As much as I’d wish that they’d wait til we weren’t speaking, their platform goes away as soon as we’re done," gold medalist Billy Demong said later. "That’s their opportunity to get out a message that they believe in. There’s part of me that would love to not have to put up with that, and there’s part of me that totally understands it."
Demong, who in 2010 became the first American Olympic champion in Nordic combined, isn’t comfortable using his stage to promote political causes. Still, there have certainly been times he’s felt tempted. And he knows some athletes may take advantage of that chance in Sochi to support gay rights.
"We all have (gay) family and friends. It’s certainly a pretty near and dear issue for a lot of people," he said. "That is a platform; it is an opportunity to speak about something like that. I definitely get it."
So far, though, most American Olympic hopefuls have taken the approach of snowboarder Kelly Clark, the 2002 gold medalist who won bronze in 2010.
"For me, the Olympics has always been about the athletes and the athletics," she said. "It has such a long history of being something that truly has the ability to bring the world together in such a unique way. There’s no other venue that creates so much unity. I hope moving forward that that is what we take away from these Olympics, that it remains something that unites us, not something that divides us."