Russian pole vault star Yelena Isinbayeva faced outrage Friday from activists and fellow athletics legends after backing Russia’s controversial new anti-gay law and saying competitors at the Sochi Winter Olympics should respect it.
The 31-year-old kicked up a storm on Thursday when she said in Moscow she supported the law signed by President Vladimir Putin in June which punishes the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors. Activists say it can be used for a broad crackdown against gays.
“We just live with boys with women, women with boys,” Isinbayeva said at a press conference ahead of the medals ceremony for the pole vault which saw her win her third world outdoor title.
“We are tolerant of all existing opinions and respect all people,” said Isinbayeva, an IOC Youth Olympics ambassador and also an ambassador for the February Olympics in Sochi.
“But they must be respectful of our laws and not promote the ideas of non-traditional orientations on the street,” she added, using the term used by Russian officials to describe homosexuality.
“Propaganda of non-traditional relations would be a great sign of disrespect to our citizens, our country and our laws. Everyone who comes to the Olympics must respect our laws.”
The Russian authorities have said all athletes will be free and safe to compete at the February Games in the Black Sea resort regardless of their sexual orientation but must obey Russian law.
While possibly playing well with a domestic audience, her stance has provoked outrage with American 400 metres legend and world record holder Michael Johnson denouncing her.
“She is very popular over here with a small group of people who are very powerful and who probably buy into that view in this country,” Johnson said in his capacity as a BBC pundit.
“It is very flawed judgement and a very flawed opinion.”
Britain’s 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion Denise Lewis said Isinbayeva may not just suffer a severe blow to her reputation but also to her pocket — though the Russian has decided to take a break to have a baby before deciding whether to return to competition.
“She is clearly not in touch with the rest of the world,” said Lewis who is also in Moscow as a BBC pundit.
“I’m surprised her management didn’t advise her to be a little more cautious with throwing her views out there. This is clearly very damning for her as a global superstar.”
There was a more cautious reaction from Australia’s 100 metres hurdles Olympic champion Sally Pearson, who opened her bid to defend her title on Friday.
“To be honest I only heard about this when I was at the warm-up track,” said the 26-year-old after winning her heat.
“I think that politics and sport do not mix that they should be kept separate and people in both of those worlds should not cross over into the other.
“Should she (Isinbayeva) have said those things? Well it’s up to her. Everyone’s got a right to comment and have a view on things.
“She wanted to do it that way and I guess you have to respect that,” she added.
Rustem Adagamov, one of Russia’s top pro-opposition bloggers, commented that Isinbayeva was appreciated because of her sporting achievements not for her intellectual insights.
“Basically, it’s like this: jumping five metres high with a pole does not make you an intelligent person. OK,” he wrote.”
“Isinbayeva is a great sportswoman but I thought she was more intelligent than this,” Nikolai Alexeyev, one of Russia’s most prominent gay rights activists, said on Twitter.
Isinbayeva’s remarks have been contrasted unfavourably to those by American 800m silver medallist Nick Symmonds before the uproar.
“As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them,” Symmonds said.
“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.”
Isinbayeva, who is based in the southern Russian city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), has publicly supported Putin as Russian leader and in the 2012 presidential election campaign was one of a group of top sports people allowed to officially campaign on his behalf.