MOSCOW — A pro-Kremlin lawmaker and former Olympic gold medallist faced a racism row Saturday after she posted a photo-collage of President Barack Obama juxtaposed with a banana on Twitter.
Irina Rodnina posted on Twitter a photomontage that purports to show Obama and his wife gazing at a hand in the foreground holding up a banana.
The image evoked the brandishing of bananas at black players by some football fans, a crude racist slur still seen at some matches in Russia.
Now a lawmaker in the Duma lower house of parliament for the ruling party, Rodnina, 64, won three Olympic gold medals in figure skating in the 1970s and 1980s.
The image she posted on Twitter went viral after Russia's charismatic opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, reposted it on Friday evening.
Navalny, who himself has raised eyebrows by speaking at nationalist rallies, wrote that the lawmaker was "making a joke."
Journalist Tikhon Zyadko responded on Twitter that: "Duma deputy Irina Rodnina doesn't hide she is a racist".
"Maybe this is everyday racism. Maybe it's that she was badly brought up and has a warped sense of humour," wrote the deputy editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets daily, Aider Muzhdabayev in a blog.
"The main thing is that Rodnina did this, and she doesn't regret it a bit."
After the post sparked a storm of disgust on Saturday, Rodnina deleted the message, but insisted she believed she had done nothing wrong.
"Freedom of speech is freedom of speech! Deal with your hangups yourself," she wrote defiantly on Twitter, saying the post had boosted her rating.
A member of the lower house's ethics committee, Yan Zelinsky concurred in comments to Russian News Service radio.
"She sees the President of the United States as liking bananas. What's the big deal?"
Another prominent sportswoman, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, recently stirred international outrage by slamming Swedish athletes for backing gay rights at the Moscow World Athletics Championships in August.
She said in broken English that Russians are "normal standard people" and dislike gay rights events.
Russia's lower house of parliament is packed with accomplished sports figures, including boxer Nikolai Valuyev, gymnast Alina Kabayeva and tennis player Marat Safin, all representing United Russia pro-Kremlin party.