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Pole vault star Isinbayeva a symbol of Russian homophobia

Anti-gay attitude makes her unacceptable as Olympic ambassador

Philip Hersh

Globetrotting

8:53 PM CDT, August 15, 2013

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The greatest female pole vaulter ever, a woman whom many consider physically beautiful, showed the ugly face of homophobia two days after winning her third world title in the event Tuesday in Moscow.

While Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva cannot be condemned for free expression of her views, they are so out of tune with the Olympic ideals of inclusiveness she should step down immediately — or be forced to resign — from her ceremonial positions with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the Youth Olympic Games.

That is what happened to U.S. gymnast Peter Vidmar after his public opposition to same-sex marriage was reported here and on websites dedicated to gay rights issues.

Vidmar was to have been U.S. chef de mission at the 2012 Olympics, a role that made him ceremonial head of the U.S. Olympic team. He resigned amid feelings that his views on same-sex marriage did not make him the right person to represent a U.S. team that would include gay athletes.

Isinbayeva is to be a torchbearer in the Sochi Olympic torch relay and ceremonial mayor of the Olympic Village in Sochi, which undoubtedly will house some gay athletes. She was an ambassador for Sochi’s successful Olympic bid and is an official International Olympic Committee ambassador of the Youth Olympic Games.

And her words at a Thursday news conference were a much harsher attack on gay rights and the LGBT community than Vidmar’s support of anti-gay marriage legislation in California.

Speaking in English, the 2004 Olympic pole vault champion delivered an impassioned defense of Russia’s new anti-gay law, said she feared for the future of her country if gays had free expression and condemned two Swedish athletes at the world championships who painted their fingernails with rainbow colors as a symbolic show of support for the LGBT community.

“It’s unrespectful of our country,” Isinbayeva said of the rainbow nails, according to news reports. “It is unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians.”

The painted fingernails also could be seen as a violation of the Russian law forbidding “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”

Russian authorities have waffled on whether the law will be enforced during the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics. That is apparently all the IOC cares about, an attitude that shows utter disrespect to the lofty ideals about human rights expressed in the Olympic Charter.

Isinbayeva, 31, apparently thinks rainbow fingernails will put Russia on the slippery slope to perdition.

“If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves a normal, standard people,” she was quoted as saying. “We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.”

Her definition of “normal” is a slap in the face to all LGBT citizens of Russia, no matter that Isinbayeva also claimed she had no issues with gay athletes being allowed to compete in Sochi.

Nick Symmonds, the U.S. 800-meter runner who dedicated his world silver medal to his gay and lesbian friends, was stunned by Isinbayeva’s statements.

“I want to say to Yelena, ‘You understand a very large portion of your citizens here are gay and lesbian people. They are standard people, too,’ ’’ Symmonds told the Associated Press on Thursday.

“ ‘For you to tell them that they’re not normal and standard, that’s what we are taking an issue with.’ That’s why we have to continue to demonstrate and speak out against the ignorance she is showing.’’

She is not only ignorant but repugnant. She has the right to be both.

That is hardly what one wants from an Olympic ambassador or the mayor of an Olympic Village. She has forfeited her right to any and all such positions anywhere in the civilized world.

Yelena Isinbayeva’s words have unwittingly — and witlessly — made her a symbol.

Of prejudice.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil