By Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune
Peter Vidmar, named last week by the U.S. Olympic Committee as chef de mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, said his publicly expressed opposition to same-sex marriage would not affect his support of the team members he will represent, including any who are in same-sex marriages or homosexual.
"I fully respect the rights of everyone to have the relationships they want to have,'' Vidmar said in a telephone interview. "I respect the rights of all our athletes, regardless of their race, their religion or their sexual orientation. I will cheer and do all I can, passionately, for every athlete on the U.S. Olympic team.''
But a prominent gay U.S. Olympian, figure skater Johnny Weir, said it was "disgraceful'' to have a person with Vidmar's views in a position, chief of mission, that makes him the symbolic head of a United States Olympic team.
"It's wrong,'' Weir said in a telephone interview. "I certainly wouldn't want to be represented by someone who is anti gay marriage. It isn't just about marriage, it is being allowed equal rights as Americans.
"The fact this man who is very publicly against something that may be represented on the American team is disgraceful.''
Vidmar, 49, winner of two 1984 Olympic gymnastics gold medals, participated in two demonstrations and donated $2,000 for the successful 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California to define marriage as between a man and a woman, overturning a California Supreme Court ruling that permitted same-sex marriage.
The Orange County Register had an Oct. 30, 2008 story, "Olympic gold medalist joins Rancho Prop 8 demonstration,'' in which it quoted Vidmar as saying, "It's good for our society to have a traditional definition of marriage.''
Vidmar said his opposition to same-sex marriage comes from exercising his religious freedom as a Mormon.
"The Church wanted to take a stand on the issue, and they invited their members to take a stand,'' he said. "I chose to be involved.''
The USOC was unaware of Vidmar's publicly expressed views on same-sex marriage before naming him chef de mission.
"I have never tried to hide this,'' Vidmar said. "It is what it is.''
Having been informed of Vidmar's position on the issue, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun issued a statement reaffirming the choice of Vidmar.
Noting that Vidmar is chairman of the board of USA Gymnastics and has served on the President's Council for Physical Fitness, Blackmun's statement said:
"Peter is a tireless advocate for sport in this country and someone who has inspired many with his successes in the world of sport. That is why we chose him as our chef for the London Games.
"We respect Peter's right to religious freedom, and we understand and respect he fact that many Americans do not share his views.''
On its web site, www.lds.org, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an item defining "Sexual Immorality'' as ``Willful participation in adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, incest, or any other unholy, unnatural, or impure sexual activity.''
Kim Farah, a spokesperson for the Mormon church, said that should be interpreted not as defining homosexuals as immoral but as defining any non-marital sexual activity as immoral under the ``chastity law,'' one of the LDS church's beliefs. Farah said in an email the church's basic principles on the issue are:
* We are all children of God and should be treated with dignity and respect.
* The Church has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a husband and a wife united in the bonds of matrimony.
* The Church is committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.
Among the six "Fundamental Principles of Olympism'' in the Olympic Charter is, "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.''
Weir, a two-time Olympian and three-time U.S. champion, said Vidmar's open support of anti-gay marriage causes "defeats the purpose'' of his statements about respect for everyone.
"Most people would have an issue if the chef (de mission) publicly was against Asian-Americans or African-Americans, so it should be dealt with if the chef is anti-gay,'' said Weir, among the few U.S. Olympians to say they are homosexual.
Box Turtle Bulletin, a web site devoted to "news, analysis and fact-checking of anti-gay rhetoric,'' headlined an April 29 item on Vidmar's selection as chef de mission, "U.S. Olympic Committee goes anti-gay.''
The website outsports.com said, ``This is not the first time the USOC has made a decision antagonizing the gay community.'' The other decision cited by outsports was the USOC's legal fight to prevent the founder of the Gay Games, Tom Waddell, from using the name, "Gay Olympic Games'' for the event.
That USOC action owed to its obligation to protect use of the word "Olympic'' as a brand name.
"I have been a volunteer in the Olympic movement for 20 years,'' Vidmar said. ``No one ever has accused me of insensitivity.''
Photos: above - Peter Vidmar at the 1984 Olympics, where he won two gymnastics gold medals (Rusty Kennedy / Associated Press); below - figure skater Johnny Weir at practice during the 2010 Olympics (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)