Athlete Protests Against Russia's Anti-Gay Laws Have Already Begun

Earlier today at the World Championships in Moscow, two Swedish athletes offered up a subtle yet unmistakable protest against Russia's oppressive anti-gay policies ahead of next year's Olympics. But athletes remain split on the right way to speak out, or whether to do it at all.

High jumper Emma Green Tregaro (above) and sprinter Moa Hjelmer painted their fingernails in rainbow colors as a sign of solidarity, and just to make sure people noticed, Tregaro posted a close-up on her Instagram the day before.

"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 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."

As word of the gesture spread, condemnation of the Swedes came from a very prominent source. Yelena Isinbayeva, considered by many the best pole-vaulter in history, came to a quick defense of the Russian laws.


Speaking in broken English, Isinbayeva said:

"It's disrespectful to our country, disrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. 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.

"We consider ourselves, like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys ... it comes from the history.

"I hope the problem won't ruin our Olympic Games in Sochi."

Russian officials seem to be doubling down on threats to enforce their laws banning "homosexual propaganda." Just this week, a statement from Russia's Interior Ministry said Olympic athletes and fans are not exempt from the laws. Perhaps worse, when asked if they would offer special protection to gay athletes, the IOC responded by pointing to its own charter, which states that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."


Now six months away from the Olympics, debate is raging about the appropriate way to act, with some (notably, not the athletes themselves) advocating a boycott. Openly gay diver Greg Louganis, deprived of the chance to compete in 1980, says a boycott wouldn't solve anything and only serve to punish the athletes. Barack Obama agrees. John Amaechi says athletes should compete, but loudly speak out against the laws and dare the Russians to arrest them.

American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds is keeping a diary for Runner's World. In an entry last week before flying to Moscow for the World Championships, he wrote that he believes it's possible to separate your personal feelings from your professional obligations.

If I am placed in a race with a Russian athlete, I will shake his hand, thank him for his country's generous hospitality, and then, after kicking his ass in the race, silently dedicate the win to my gay and lesbian friends back home. Upon my return, I will then continue to fight for their rights in my beloved democratic union.

But then, on Tuesday, Symmonds won a silver in the 800m. After the race, he spoke with Russian outlet R-Sport and dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends back home.

"As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality however God made them. 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. I disagree with their laws."