Monday, 19 August 2013, 08:30 , by Chris Lehourites, Associated Press
The rainbow colours two Swedish athletes painted their fingernails in support of gays and lesbians sent a clear message and brought a swift rebuke from a Russian star, perhaps even a glimpse of what's to come at the Sochi Olympics.
Speaking at the world championships, pole vault gold medalist Yelena Isinbayeva condemned homosexuality and criticised the Swedes for their gesture critical of Russia's new anti-gay legislation.
But, a day later, Isinbayeva appeared to back off from her critical words by saying her comments in English may have been "misunderstood."
The law, which bans gay "propaganda," has drawn sharp criticism and led some Western activists to call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in the Russian resort.
Isinbayeva won her third world title Tuesday before a boisterous home crowd, and drew even louder cheers Thursday when she received her gold medal. But before accepting it, the woman who will serve as "mayor" of one of the Sochi Olympic villages spoke in favour of the anti-gay stance.
"If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people," Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic champion, said in English. "We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.
"Everything must be fine. It comes from history. We never had any problems, these problems in Russia, and we don't want to have any in the future."
Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro, who won a bronze medal at the 2005 worlds, and sprinter Mao Hjelmer sported rainbow colours on their fingernails for events at Luzhniki Stadium, which also hosted the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
"The first thing that happened when I came to Moscow and pulled my curtains aside was that I saw the rainbow and that felt a little ironic," Green Tregaro said in a video posted on the website of the Swedish newspaper Expressen. "Then I had a suggestion from a friend on Instagram that maybe I could paint my nails in the colours of the rainbow and that felt like a simple, small thing that maybe could trigger some thoughts."
Isinbayeva said it was wrong for the Swedes to make such a statement while competing in Russia.
"It's unrespectful to our country. It's unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different from European people and other people from different lands," Isinbayeva told reporters. "We have our home and everyone has to respect (it). When we arrive to different countries, we try to follow their rules."
Russia's new law does not explicitly ban participation in gay pride parades or promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality online, but anyone wearing a rainbow flag on the street or writing about gay relationships on Facebook, for instance, could be accused of propagandizing.
The IOC and FIFA have asked the Russian government for more clarification. It remains unclear if the new law will be enforced during the Sochi Olympics or World Cup.
The IAAF, the sport's governing body, said the opinions of all athletes should be respected.
"The IAAF constitution underlines our commitment to principle of nondiscrimination in terms of religious, political or sexual orientation," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies told The Associated Press. "Allied to this is our belief in free expression as a basic human right, which means we must respect the opinions of both Green Tregaro and Isinbayeva."
The International Olympic Committee declined to comment.
"You will understand that at this stage we cannot comment on reported opinions/comments," IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said.
American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds was shocked by Isinbayeva's comments. Symmonds won a silver medal in the 800 meters at about the same time that Isinbayeva won her pole vault title.
"Oh, my god. I can't believe she said that. It's bad," Symmonds told the AP. "For Yelena to come out and say we are normal, standard Russian citizens — I'm paraphrasing here — and we don't stand for that.
"I want to say to Yelena, 'You understand a very large portion of your citizens here are gay and lesbian people. They are standard people, too. They were created this way. For you to tell them that they're not normal and standard, that's what we're taking an issue with.' That's why we have to continue to demonstrate and to speak out against the ignorance that she's showing."
Symmonds said he dedicated his silver medal to his gay and lesbian friends, as he said he would in a blog entry for "Runner's World" before the championships began.
"While I was here, I wanted to focus on athletics. I wanted to win a medal. That was my job," Symmonds said. "Now that I'm done doing that job, if there's something I can do, if this gives me a platform to voice my opinion and speak out about the atrocities that I've seen here, that's what I'd like to do."
Isinbayeva has set 28 world records and won seven major titles, including gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but she said this week that she plans to take a break from the sport to have a baby. She was part of the team that helped Russia win the right to host the 2018 World Cup.
Asked by Russian TV if she had any intentions of becoming a politician, Isinbayeva said: "I have blabbed so much today and, as usual, everything was turned upside down."
Fans cheered when Isinbayeva entered the stadium to receive her gold medal and roared their approval when she stood on the top step of the podium, thrusting her arms in the air and jumping with glee.
IAAF treasurer Valentin Balakhnichev of Russia put the gold medal around her neck and kissed her cheeks, and when the Russian anthem began, Isinbayeva started singing but soon broke down, burying her face in her hands. She quickly regained her composure and kissed her medal while the anthem played on.
Before posing with American silver medalist Jenn Suhr and Cuban bronze medallist Yarisley Silva, Isinbayeva dried her eyes and checked her fingertips for smeared makeup. She was all smiles in the ensuing photos, and then addressed the adoring crowd, speaking into a microphone as her image flashed on giant screens.
Following the outcry after her comments were reported in the media, Isinbayeva seemed to backtrack the next day.
"English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday. What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests," Isinbayeva said in a statement issued through local organizers of the world championships.
"I respect the views of my fellow athletes and let me state in the strongest terms that I am opposed to any discrimination against gay people."
Both the law and Isinbayeva's comments appear to have placed other Russian athletes in a bind between liberal impulses and support for their country.
"On the one hand, you have to respect everybody's individuality, the interests of other people. On the other hand, you have to look at the history of each country. Every country has its own traditions," Russian triple jumper Aleksey Fedorov said Friday.
Even though Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, antipathy toward gays is traditionally widespread and longstanding in Russia.