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Olympics / Sports

Commentary: King hoping to make Sochi next week, begin dialogue

There is nothing ceremonial about President Barack Obama's decision to place Billie Jean King on the official U.S delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

She wasn't added just to tweak the nerves of Vladimir Putin, even if that does provide a great visual of the tennis great and Russian president breaking bread and volleying human rights issues.

No, the Long Beach, Calif., native and sports icon was asked to go to Sochi to fight the latest in a lifetime of battles, one that has lasted longer than her illustrious tennis career.

Considering all that she has achieved taking sports and society to task, there was no better choice.

This time, she's fighting to save lives, too. She originally planned to be in Sochi for Friday's opening ceremony but has delayed her departure because her mother, Betty, is ill.

King is in Arizona with her mom and brother, Randy Moffitt, a former major league pitcher, and hopes to get to Sochi next week.

"There are more than 70 countries that incarcerate people for being gay," King said in an interview last week. "Ten million people or more . . . have gone to jail. How mind-boggling it must be to live in that kind of a culture?"

Taking on discrimination of the LBGT community is merely the bold headline. King's plan is to meet with the national Olympic committees of 83 countries that represent regimes where pursuing a gay lifestyle is considered a criminal act.

Some countries imprison those convicted of being gay, anywhere from two to 25 years. Others allow the stoning of a person to death or near-death for being gay. Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates embrace the death penalty in some cases.

Russia, which has a law banning gay propaganda to minors, is a minor offender in comparison, but the Olympics are a logical place to start the dialogue.

Sport often has been a wedge for social issues, and the Olympics are the biggest arena on Earth. Civil rights in 1968 and apartheid in 1976 are just a few of the major issues that convened at the Olympics.

King believes she can start a dialogue with Olympic committee officials of those countries, a conversation they will hopefully take back home when the Olympics are over.

Change often starts at the bottom, but in some places -- where those on the bottom are heavily oppressed -- it needs to be primed at the top.

"There's an International Olympic Committee rule that says athletes cannot be sent home for demonstrating," King said.

"So we have an opportunity for our athletes to be part of this. The United States Olympic Committee has its own rules that prohibit (lifestyle) discrimination, and we want to get the IOC and other countries to do likewise.

"The IOC has some of that language (in its bylaws), but it needs to be more specific. It's just creating a dialogue. Sports is universal. Relationships in sports are so important, and the Olympics are a chance to reach a lot of people."

King isn't reaching across this aisle alone. She's looking for followers, too. She knows the value of social media but believes in the power of traditional media to enact change through volume.

"It can be a watershed moment," she said. "It's an opportunity for the media to tell this story and to ask important questions. They can't get in trouble for it."

No one knows this better than King.

In her tennis infancy in Long Beach, she fought officials over opportunities to play that hinged on something as trifling as a proper tennis outfit. She won.

Former tennis pro Bobby Riggs thought it would be fun, and financially rewarding, to play and beat a woman. King risked her own reputation and played Riggs because she feared what losses to Riggs would do to the stature of her sport.

She won, in three sets, on national television.

When she complained about disparate pay between men's and women's tennis, she founded the Women's Tennis Association as a unique tour and labor entity. The success of the WTA closed the pay gap for major tournaments and created separate revenue just for the new tour.

Her darkest moment proved to be one of her greatest victories.

In 1981, King's former secretary Marilyn Barnett filed a palimony lawsuit against King, outing the tennis star in the most public way.

It was costly. She lost all of her sponsorships and had to extend her playing career just to stay afloat financially.

It put her husband, Larry, in the crosshairs of the controversy, too.

He stood by her throughout, including the very public news conference to address the lawsuit and become the first female athlete to admit she was gay.

"Within 24 hours, I lost all my endorsements," King said. "I lost everything. I lost $2 million at least because I had longtime contracts. I had to play just to pay for the lawyers. In three months I went through $500,000. I was in shock. I didn't make $2 million in my lifetime, so it's all relative to what you make.

"It was very hard because I was outed, and I think you have to do it in your own time. Fifty percent of gay people know who they are by the age of 13; I was in the other 50 percent. I would never have married Larry if I'd known. I would never have done that to him. I was totally in love with Larry when I was 21."

Asked last week if she could ever have imagined the track her life would take after that day in 1981, she said, "No, not at all. It was a very stressful time. But the truth shall set you free."

There is no issue too big for King to tackle, and no one with more tenacity to enact change.

The fierce forehands of her tennis career were preamble to a life in which she has continued to rush the net whenever asked.

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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