World champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva claimed her third world title this week, but used the win as an opportunity to defend the anti-gay laws of her home country of Russia. She was put off that two Swedish athletes had painted their fingernails with rainbow colors in a show of support for their LGBT competitors and called it out as disrespectful:
ISINBAYEVA: “If we allow [them] 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. We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys. [...]
It’s unrespectful [sic] to our country. It’s unrespectful [sic] to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different from European people and other people from different lands. We have our home and everyone has to respect (it). When we arrive to different countries, we try to follow their rules.
British heptathlete and fellow gold-medal winner Louise Hazel criticized Isinbayeva on Twitter, saying that her “‘homophobic’ comments have no place in our sport” and calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to discipline her, noting that she is an Ambassador for the Youth Olympic Games. Isinbayeva also serves as “mayor” of one of the Sochi Olympic villages. U.S. runner Nick Symmonds, who dedicated his silver medal at the World Championships to his LGBT friends this week, also called her out, suggesting she’s “behind the times.”
Friday, Isinbayeva claimed that her comments have been “misunderstood”:
What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests. But let me make it clear 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 on the grounds of their sexuality.
Unfortunately, Russia’s laws very much do discriminate against gay people, criminalizing any public display or advocacy on their behalf. The disagreement between Isinbayeva and Hazel is likely the first of many to transpire in the lead-up to the 2014 Olympics. The IOC has promised that LGBT athletes will be safe, but has not taken any position on Russia’s laws, which the country’s officials have asserted will be enforced. Indeed, if the IOC is more concerned about athletes speaking out politically than protecting them from Russia’s oppressive policies, it could make the Olympic experience even worse for LGBT athletes, coaches, and fans.