Was it a kiss that meant more than a kiss?
When two Russian athletes celebrated a relay victory at the recent World Track and Field Championships in Moscow with a kiss on the lips, it was first speculated the action was a protest against the country's anti-gay propaganda laws.
Since then, Kseniya Ryzhova has denied any political statement and said her show of affection for Yulia Gushchina was nothing more than jubilation over their win in the 4x400-metre relay. Ryzhova has even said it's insulting anyone would read homosexual overtones into the action.
But since Russia introduced laws to crackdown on demonstrations upholding gay rights, including the distribution of so-called homosexual propaganda to teens and children, athletes around the world now find themselves at the centre of a charged political debate. The Russian capital hosted the track and field championship earlier this month and five months from now, Sochi hosts the Winter Olympics.
Two Vancouver athletes who represented Canada at the world championships are still wondering about the motivation behind the Russian sprinters’ smooch and how — or if — athletes should speak their minds for or against the laws of a host country.
Marathon runner Rob Watson and race walker Iñaki Gomez continue to wrestle with the question of whether athletes should make political statements at international sports competitions.
Watson, who placed 20th in the marathon, wondered if the Russian women were pressured to explain their kiss a certain way.
"I hope they were trying to make a statement, and then the policy-makers in Russia and their federations could have come down pretty heavy-handed on them," Watson said.
On Aug. 18, the last day of competition, Gomez tweeted about the incident, sending a link to the picture and story with the comment:
"Great 2 see athletes take a stand!"
Gomez isn't sure what motivated Ryzhova's actions or her explanation of the kiss. He did not delete his tweet.
Great 2 see athletes take a stand! Russian gold medalists kiss on medal stand at world champs 2 protest anti-gay laws http://t.co/EhuXtl933q— Inaki Gomez (@InakiGomezG) August 18, 2013
"We have to go by the facts we know," said Gomez, who finished eighth in the 20-kilometre walk. "We don't know if they were pressured or not. Maybe they were and that's unfortunate.
"They did an action. They probably were aware of whatever was happening at the time. It caused a re-action."
Watson said the Russian anti-gay laws are frustrating and make "you shake your head," but he was conflicted on whether athletes should speak out while in Moscow.
"It's a tricky situation," he said. "Their take on this whole anti-gay [issue] it's wrong.
"At the same time, I really don't have much of a right to go into their country and talk on their politics and policies. We're not perfect in Canada. We have our own issues here. I wish we could go make a point, but sometimes you have to go to someone else's country and you are a guest."
Similarly, Gomez didn't think it was right to make criticisms while in Moscow.
"I know there is a time and a place for speaking out and not speaking out," he said. "During my time there I didn't think it was appropriate.
"It's not our country. While I agree or disagree on particular issues, that's just the way it is. As an athlete, we are there because we believe sport goes beyond any border or political issue. We're not there to make political statements."
Some athletes did voice their opinions in Moscow.
American sprinter Nick Symmonds, who was second in the 800 metres, dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends back home. Two Swedish athletes painted their fingernails with rainbow colours, a symbol of gay pride; they were criticized by a sporting icon in Russia, pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who said in her second language that homosexuality is not “normal” or “standard” and said protesting Russian laws was disrespectful to the country and its citizens. In turn, Isinbayeva, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, took flack from International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
Gomez doesn't question the right of athletes to state their position.
"If they feel it's so important to use their status or position, that's their choice. It's not a right or wrong place,” said Gomez, a graduate of Vancouver College and UBC now studying law at the University of Calgary.
"If people are frustrated if some athletes don't do it, they also have to understand we are there as athletes. That's our focus. We are not there to criticize a political situation or not."
There have been some calls for a boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi to protest Russia's anti-gay legislation. Watson said that would only hurt the athletes.
"These athletes have trained their whole lives," he said. "The Olympics are founded on the fact you put aside your differences and you come together and celebrate."
However, Watson would support any athlete who made a public statement.
"I hope a high-profile athlete wins an Olympic gold medal," he said. "I hope they do a victory lap with their nation's flag and I hope they whip out a rainbow flag.
"Everyone is equal. Just because you are gay, it doesn't make you any different than anyone else."
Jim Morris is a veteran reporter who has covered sports for 30 years. Reach him at email@example.com.
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