SOCHI, Russia — Eric Heiden thought it was a crank call.
It turned out to be a member of President Barack Obama’s staff asking him to be a member of the official U.S. delegation representing the president at the Sochi Winter Games.
“It’s an honor to be selected to be part of the delegation,” said Heiden, one of the greatest speedskaters in history, who has a medical practice in Park City.
Heiden, who won five gold medals in long-track speedskating in the 1980 Olympics, will represent the president at the closing ceremony along with legendary speedskater Bonnie Blair and tennis icon Billie Jean King.
It is not the first time Heiden, who still works with U.S. speedskaters, has represented the government of the United States at the Winter Olympics. He was asked by President George W. Bush to represent him in 2006.
“It’s a position of responsibility. You’re representing the United States, which I’m very proud of,” he said.
While a number of world leaders passed on attending, in large part because of Russia’s recently passed law prohibiting “gay propaganda,” most sent delegations to represent them at the opening and closing ceremonies. Since the games began on Feb. 7, there have been limited protests, some related arrests and calls for IOC President Thomas Bach to lead a change in the way countries are chosen so human rights are a factor in the decision.
Obama selected six former athletes, mostly former Olympians, and a few diplomats to represent him and the country at the 2016 Games. Among them were three openly gay athletes — King, figure skater Brian Boitano and two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Cahow was supposed to represent the U.S. with Heiden at the closing ceremony Sunday, but King’s mother passed away just before the Olympics started, so Cahow took her place at the opening ceremony.
“It was like walking into opening ceremonies for the first time,” Cahow said of the experience. “It was incredibly moving. I thought the opening ceremonies in Sochi were very beautiful.”
Cahow doesn’t mind that her sexual orientation was a factor in her selection, but she hopes people understand it’s only a part of who she is. The Harvard graduate and soon-to-be-lawyer is a two-time silver medalist who works on a variety of issues, including concussion education and prevention and athletic opportunities for women. When it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, she focuses her attention on mental health and programs that educate and hope to eradicate homophobic bullying.
In her opinion, the Olympic movement is about inclusion, equality and possibility.
While she was criticized by some for her saying her experience in Russia was positive, she wrote a blog explaining why she felt that way.
“I have reported my experiences in Sochi as being positive, was because they were,” she wrote on www.newnownext.com. “Despite my fierce disagreement with Russian policy, and the damage it continues to inflict, I will never fabricate stories to bolster the truth of my own beliefs. More importantly, my experiences were positive because I allowed them to be. I made a concerted effort to give everyone I met the opportunity to surprise me. I made myself vulnerable, in hopes that my humanity might shine through.”
Heiden said political tension is nothing new, despite the efforts of organizer and athletes to eliminate political agendas from the experience.
“Politically, there was a lot of tension in 1980,” Heiden said of the Lake Placid Games where he won five gold medals. “As an athlete trying to focus on what you have to do, you can’t pay attention.”
Like Cahow, he sees the opportunity as the chance to represent and honor what he loves about the Olympic movement.
“I look at the Olympics as a celebration of sport,” Heiden said. “I’m looking forward to it. There are a lot of great athletes competing at the prime of their careers. When I think of the Olympic ideals, I look at the Olympics as the opportunity for great athletes to represent their countries and to bring the world together to highlight the communities that they come from.” Adds Cahow, “I’m just excited. I think it will be a fantastic games with amazing performances that will encourage us to become better, right along with the Olympic spirit.”