World Athletics Championships 2013: Yelena Isinbayeva sends Russia from the dark side of the moon to the dark ages

Pole vault champion's anti-homosexual quotes have put the country into the spotlight further that she will have thought

Simon Turnbull
Saturday 17 August 2013 18:03
Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva says she was misunderstood in her previous comments condemning homosexuality
Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva says she was misunderstood in her previous comments condemning homosexuality

For three and a half days in the Luzhniki Stadium, it was as though we were on the dark side of the moon; such was the low-key lunar atmosphere at the World Athletics Championships. Then along came the crowds and Yelena Isinbayeva, the drama queen of the pole vault taking gold in dramatic fashion on Tuesday night and threating to raise the rafters in the process.

All of a sudden, there was something resembling London 2012 fever and Russia had a chance of pulling off a successful major global sporting event, the forerunner to the staging of the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 football World Cup.

Then back came Isinbayeva, into the press conference room before her medal presentation on Thursday evening. And we were not so much on the dark side of the moon again as back in the dark ages.

It was a stunning outpouring from a national icon who will be a torch bearer and also mayor of the athletes’ village when the Winter Olympics come to the Black Sea resort of Sochi in February next year.

There is likely to be more than one gay in that particular village. There will certainly be more than one inhabitant incensed with the mayoress and her less than enlightened views.

Despite her subsequent volte face, the Russian pole vaulter has more than likely ensured that her country’s anti-gay legislation will be as hot a topic when the world comes to Sochi in six months’ time as she has unwittingly helped it to become right now.

It all kicked off when Isinbayeva was asked about two Swedish athletes  - high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro and 200m runner Moa Hjelmer – wore nails painted in the rainbow fashion of the gay pride emblem. They were registering a protest against the recently implemented Russian law that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors" and imposes fines on those holding gay-pride rallies.

“It’s disrespectful to our country, disrespectful to our citizens, because we are Russians,” Isinbayeva said at Thursday’s press conference, speaking in English. “Maybe we are different than European people and people from different lands. We have our law which everyone has to respect. When we go to different countries, we try to follow their rules. We are not trying to set our rules over there. We are just trying to be respectful.”

The new legislation has, of course, prompted calls Stephen Fry and others for a boycott of the Winter Olympics, where the law will apply to athletes and spectators. Gay rights campaigners say the ban on promoting homosexuality effectively criminalises gay rights rallies and could be used to prosecute anyone voicing support for homosexuals.

Isinbayeva, however, initially insisted: “If we allow people 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 comes from history. We never had any problems, these problems in Russia, and we don’t want to have any in the future.”

If there is a problem for the hosts in Sochi, it is that there is liable to be no shortage of athletes willing to point out, as the American 800m runner Nick Symmonds did in swift and erudite fashion in Moscow, that in the wider world such conceptions of ‘normality’ are rooted in the dim, distant past.

“It blows my mind that a young, so well-educated woman can be so behind with the times,” said Symmonds, who had already pointedly dedicated the silver medal he won in his final on Tuesday night to his gay and lesbian friends back home. “Guess what Yelena: a large portion of your citizenship are normal, standard homosexuals.”

Guess what? Less than 24 hours and an international media storm later, Yelena performed the kind of somersault with which she routinely celebrates major victories. It turned out that the Russian diva had been playing a Scarlett Johansson role. Her words had got lost in mental translation.

"English is not my first language and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday,” Isinbayeva said, in a statement issued by the local organising committee. “What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries, particularly when they are guests.

"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.”

It remains to be seen what kind of media storm will erupt when the world’s Winter Olympians come to Sochi and are inevitably asked for their views of the matter. As the story rumbled on here, the International Olympic Committee stressed that they would not tolerate athletes who use the Winter Games as a platform to demonstrate against Russian law.

An IOC spokesman pointed to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which clearly states that the Games "are not a place for proactive protests or demonstration.” The spokesman added: "This rule has been in place for many years and aims to separate sport from politics. By its nature, the Olympic Games cannot become a platform for any kind of demonstration and the IOC will not accept any proactive gesture that could harm their spirit and jeopardize their future."

Judging by the reaction among the rank and file athletes at these track and field World Championships in Moscow, we could be in for a Winter Olympics of some discontent in Sochi.

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