How a Russian Kiss Became a Global Controversy

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Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Something is awry when a congratulatory kiss between two female Russian athletes becomes an international embarrassment for their country. For that, Russian authorities have themselves to blame.

Runners Ksenia Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova exhibited pretty normal Russian behavior when they kissed on the podium after winning the 4x400-meter relay at the World Athletics Championship in Moscow. But given that Russia recently outlawed “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” making it punishable by fines ranging from $130 for private individuals to $33,000 for companies, the act became the subject of global scrutiny.

Did the two athletes just brush each other’s lips or were their mouths a little ajar? Was that a flicker of tongue? Some media interpreted the kiss as a protest against the persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. “What will Putin say?” wondered the Israeli news site

The link between Russia’s anti-gay legislation and its suitability as a venue for international sporting events can be traced back to the British actor and author Stephen Fry, who on Aug. 7 published an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, calling on them to boycott the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi.

In the letter, Fry likened Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler. The Berlin Olympiad “provided a stage for a gleeful Fuehrer and only increased his status at home and abroad,” Fry wrote. “What he did with that confidence we all know.”

Cameron rejected Fry’s plea on Twitter: “I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.” The IOC, for its part, sought clarification of the anti-gay law. Speaking in Moscow on Aug. 10, IOC head Jacques Rogge said he had received written reassurances from Moscow that the legislation would “not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” He added, however, that he did not “understand all the details because of probably a difficulty in translation.”

On Aug. 12, the Russian Interior Ministry issued a rather ominous clarification: “The abovementioned law has come into force and is enforced throughout the Russian Federation. Due to that fact, during the Olympic Games and at any other time the police will act within the framework of the Russian law in general and the law on the protection of children against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations in particular.” The ministry went on to say police would only apply the law to “persons who aim to persuade minors to enter into non-traditional sexual relations,” and otherwise would have no problem with people of any sexual orientation attending the Olympics.

FIFA, the governing body of the Soccer World Cup, which Russia is scheduled to host in 2018, joined the IOC on Aug. 14 in asking Russia to explain itself: “FIFA expects that all guests in a FIFA World Cup host country, whether they are fans, players, officials or media, experience a great FIFA World Cup irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

Some of the athletes taking part in the World Athletics Championship needed no further clarification to protest. Swedish high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro performed with her fingernails painted in the colors of the rainbow, a reference to the LGBT banner. The world athletics federation, IAAF, later asked Green-Tregaro to remove the paint because it violated a rule about making no political statements during competition.

One of Russia’s most fabled athletes, champion pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, ranted against the Swede. “We have our law which everyone has to respect,” she said, speaking in halting English. “If we will allow to promote and, you know, do all this stuff on the street, we very afraid about our nations because we consider ourself like a normal, standard people which is lives with the boys with womans, womans with boys, you know, everything must be fine here, it comes from the history.”

Isinbayeva’s outburst scandalized some foreign athletes also taking part in the Moscow championship. “Guess what, Yelena, a large portion of your citizenship are normal, standard homosexuals,” said U.S. runner Nick Symmonds.

The Russian runners haven’t commented on their kiss. The available evidence suggests it wasn’t meant as an expression of homosexuality. Ryzhova, nee Vdovina, is newly married and says she is in love with her husband, who dated her for eight months before proposing to her on bended knee. “Now that I am married I am less crazy about sports and I want a family more and more,” she said in a recent interview. “No medals, money or glory can replace family happiness and the birth of a little one.”

The reaction to the kiss would be something to laugh about if Russian officials were not so deadly serious about the homosexuality issue. “We want to shield our children, whose psyche is not yet fully formed, from the propaganda of drug addiction, drunkenness and non-traditional sexual relations,” Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said at the closing press conference of the World Athletics Championship. “We want them to decide for themselves when they grow up, that is the purpose of the law. But welcome to Sochi, and I want to say again that all the rights and freedoms will be observed here and there will be no infringements on them.”

The bodies that govern sports probably won’t cancel the events scheduled to take place in Russia over the gay rights issue. The Olympics were held in China despite its dismal human rights record. Yet by passing the loosely formulated, patently silly law against “gay propaganda,” Russia has defeated the purpose of hosting global competitions such as the Winter Games and the World Cup: to raise the nation’s international prestige. Rather, it is succeeding in turning the media spotlight on the bigotry and backwardness of Putin’s regime.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View.)

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