CREDIT: US Presswire
A top American distance runner dedicated the silver medal he won at the track and field World Championships in Moscow to his gay and lesbian friends, becoming the first athlete to openly defy Russia’s new anti-gay law that outlaws “homosexual propaganda.” Nick Symmonds won the silver medal in the 800-meters Tuesday, then broke a previous pledge to not speak out against the law while at the championships by telling a Russian news outlet that he had no choice but to say something.
“As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them,” Symmonds told Russia’s R-Sport. “Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.”
“I respect Russians’ ability to govern their people,” he added. “I disagree with their laws. I do have respect for this nation. I disagree with their rules.”
Symmonds’ statement is the first major test of the Russian law by an international athlete and could possibly land him in trouble with Russian authorities, who have already deported foreign activists who have protested the law, including four Dutch filmmakers recording a documentary about the activism against it. Whether the government would enforce the law against Symmonds is unclear, though it seems unlikely that it would take on such a high-profile incident. The International Association of Athletic Federations, track and field’s governing body, has taken an even more hands-off approach to the law than the International Olympic Committee, calling on Russia to reconsider the law but also saying it was “no problem” and that athletes must respect it, at least publicly, during the World Championships.
Other athletes have pledged to speak out against the law during the Winter Olympics, which open in Sochi in February. Openly gay American figure skater Johnny Weir has said he is willing to get arrested during the Games in Russia, while gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who is from New Zealand, has pledged to wear a rainbow pin during competition in Sochi. The IOC said this week that it may punish athletes who speak out against the law during the Olympics for violating its rule against political statements.
Russian authorities have sent mixed signals about whether the law will be enforced during the Olympics. The IOC says it has received “assurances” from Russia that the law will not be enforced on Olympic athletes, journalists, or fans, but Russian lawmakers, including the sponsor of the legislation, insist that it will be in effect. Vitaly Milonov, the sponsor, said this week that LGBT activists in Russia needed to die for their extremism. Likewise, the head of efforts to prepare for Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup said the law will be in effect then in order to keep “naked people” from “running around displaying their homosexuality.”
American lawmakers aren’t staying silent about the law. A bipartisan group of 88 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to protect American athletes in Russia, and President Obama has condemned the law and its potential effects on the Olympics on multiple occasions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) became the latest to speak out against it Wednesday when she tweeted, “Russia’s decision to criminalize equality is outrageous—worst prejudices shouldn’t threaten world’s best athletes at #Sochi2014.”