Legendary pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva should be sorry but not the scapegoat

With the Russian anti-gay sentiments that placed a dark cloud over the 2013 IAAF Track and Field World Championships over the host city of Moscow, 31 year-old Yelena Isinbayeva may have been the most controversial figure of the event. Quite possible the greatest pole vaulter in athletic history, many of her comments generated negative media attention.

Photo by Reuters

Photo by Reuters

The catalyst for the downward spiral of controversy started with Isinbayeva criticizing Swedish athletes Emma Green Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer. The two athletes painted their nails in rainbow colors as a show of solidarity for the LGBT movement.

As English is not her first language, Isinbayeva stated that her remarks were misunderstood. Initially, it was reported that she agreed with the stance that Russia took in implementing laws regarding gay propaganda directed towards minors. Compounded by remarks about what is considered normal people and the issue of avoiding future problems in Russia, the two-time Summer Games champion was reviled internationally after the remarks appeared in Sports Illustrated.

Rather than being celebrated for earning the gold medal in the pole vault, she spent the remaining days of her event having to defend herself and state there was a misunderstanding. Winning a gold medal on home soil should have been a career-defining moment, instead, it will stand as a black mark on an otherwise spotless career.

As a member of the Champions for Peace club, based out of Monaco, her image as an athletic humanitarian took a remarkable tarnish outside of Russia. Louise Hazel, a gold medalist in the Heptathlon was highly critical, suggesting that Isinbayeva’s role as a Youth Olympics ambassador should be under review.

The world record holder in pole vaulting and the first woman to clear five meters, her attempts to clarify included a statement that she was opposed to discrimination against gay people. Essar Gabriel, the secretary general of the IAAF welcomed her remarks but the aftermath may prove to be a bit harsher.

Adding fuel to the fire were comments that she would like to live in Monaco as her hometown of Volgograd (once known as Stalingrad) was impoverished and deteriorated. As part of the group that helped Russia obtain the 2018 FIFA World Cup, her role as a builder in the modern sporting movement in Russia takes another hit. These ill-timed comments have only placed her into an even bigger hole.

The IAAF World Athlete of the Year on three separate occasions, Isinbayeva was made the Mayor of the Olympic Village for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Based on the controversy that has emanated, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge is considering removing the title from her.

While the Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak wrote a letter stating that there would be no discrimination, it is obvious that everyone is in damage control mode. Although many in Russia support the law and applauded her remarks, Isinbayeva has uncomfortably become a political figure.

Despite her remarks, Isinbayeva’s transformation into a scapegoat is harsh. The damage done to her reputation and athletic legacy (which includes 28 world records) will certainly haunt her for the rest of her athletic career and that is a punishment that may prove difficult to bear.

While it would have been in her best interests to simply apologize for her initial remarks, it is too late to reverse this. Moving forward will definitely be difficult but the threat of removing her as Mayor of the Olympic Village is a very severe punishment. For everything she has done in her
career as an athlete, she is one of the most accomplished female athletes in Russia’s history. As women still fight for acceptance in sport, the role of Mayor certainly belongs to a female athlete.

It is true that she should have subscribed to the maxim that silence is golden, but this is not the first time that an athlete has put their foot in the mouth. Inappropriate remarks about homosexuality have been made by athletes many, many times prior. While this will likely not be the last time that an athlete makes a remark (whether in error or not), she must understand that what she said is wrong. Heading into Sochi, everyone deserves to be accepted for who they are, and forgiveness needs to be considered for those that may have misunderstood.

Embrace of Russian athletes defining sporting moment of summer

As a direct rebuttal towards the anti-gay sentiments from their Russian counterparts, athletes Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firov embraced each other on the medal stand at the 2013 IAAF track championships in Moscow. Part of the 4×400 meter relay team that claimed the gold medal, it was not only the defining moment of the event, but of the entire summer, possibly the entire year.

Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kiss during the 4x400m Relay medal ceremony (Image by Grigory Dukor, Reuters)

Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kiss during the 4x400m Relay medal ceremony (Image by Grigory Dukor, Reuters)

The moment evoked memories of the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute in which gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their fists on the podium. Wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges, it was a statement towards the racism they endured in the United States. One of the most iconic images in sports history, even silver medalist Peter Norman wore a badge as a sign of solidarity in their struggle for human rights.

Although Smith and Carlos were treated by boos and jeers by the fans in attendance, Ryzhova and Firov were greeted by cheers and applause. While sources from the Russian track team stated that it was just a congratulatory kiss, the image truly proves that a kiss is worth a thousand words. Regardless of its meaning, the message from the kiss was certainly interpreted differently by the rest of the sporting world.

Of note, other athletes at the games showed their support for equality in unique ways. Emma Green Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer decorated their nails in a rainbow pattern, while Nick Symmonds dedicated his win to gay friends in the United States.

Even if the kiss was meant to be just congratulatory, it has transformed into a statement that brings tremendous confidence and support to the LGBT athletic movement. While no other arena is as powerful or universal as sport in conveying a message, the momentum of this kiss has only set the stage for the next major athletic event in Russia, the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.

While the struggles of LGBT individuals is one that endures in many parts of the world, the message that the embrace provides is certainly a powerful statement that all people deserve to be treated equally. In addition, it also reinforces the message that athletes must not boycott the 2014 Sochi Winter Games; proving that more can be accomplished through participation than by running away.