The Medal-Stand Kiss Heard Round the World

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Sportswriter Dave Zirin appears on an upcoming episode of Moyers & Company to talk about the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the brewing controversy in the sports world over how athletes might play a role there in protesting Russia’s anti-gay law. This is his most recent blog post from his “Edge of Sports” column first published on The Nation on Aug. 20, 2013.


Gold medalists Kseniya Ryzhova and Yulia Gushchina of Russia kiss on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's 4x400 relay during the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on August 17, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Gold medalists Kseniya Ryzhova and Yulia Gushchina of Russia kiss on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women's 4x400 relay during the 14th IAAF World Athletics Championships at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Aug. 17, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

“A Tommie Smith/John Carlos moment.” My inbox became flooded on Monday with variations of that phrase after two Russian 4X400 Gold medalists, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kissed on the medal stand at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow. This led to widespread pronouncements — not speculation but pronouncements — that their kiss was in fact a protest against Russia’s recent brual wave of anti-LGBT legislation. People across the world, alarmed at the repression and violence in Russia, were comparing the kiss with ecstatic joy to that moment in Mexico City in 1968, when Carlos and Smith raised their black gloves to the heavens in the name of anti-racism and universal human rights.

This enthusiasm was understandable. The still photos of Ryzhova and Firova appeared like a dramatic rebuke of Vladimir Putin’s criminalization of LGBT life. The kiss also came on the heels of protest efforts at the Championships by Swedish athletes Emma Green-Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer — who painted their fingernails in rainbow hues — as well as public statements of solidarity from U.S. 800 meter runner Nick Symmonds. Symmonds dedicated his silver medal to his LGBT friends back home saying, “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.”

With the coming Sochi Olympics and calls to boycott Russia, ban Russia from competition, or use the Olympics as a protest staging ground for Pride Marches and athletic activism, there is simply no arena more alive with resistance to Russia’s draconian legislation than sports. This can be best understood as the culmination of a historically unprecedented level of confidence amongst LGBT athletes and allies. As Robbie Rogers, out and proud professional soccer player proclaimed, “It’s awesome to be part of a movement that’s changing the world.”

All that said, the question of whether the kiss between Ryzhova and Firova was a conscious act of political rebellion, is just that: a question. The Metro newspaper in the UK quoted an unnamed source in their camp who described it as “just kissing, not protesting against anti-gay laws.” They could be saying this to protect them and keep the track stars out of Russian interrogation or prison, but perhaps not. The video of the “kiss” tells a different story than the dramatic still images. These are quick pecks, in line with Russian custom. All four runners in fact, give each other kisses. Even more importantly, the crowd, cheering on the gold medalists, doesn’t respond to their actions as if anything unusual actually happened. There is just a continual wave of cheers. Compare that to the reaction to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists: the crowd goes completely silent, followed by heckles and jeers.

It certainly matters whether the act was a conscious moment of protest, particularly because, as Smith and Carlos learned, it’s far more dangerous to protest your own country than traveling abroad as a non-citizen to express dissent, even in Russia where tourists can be detained forpromoting “gay propaganda.” But conscious or not, the international outpouring of support and affection for Ryzhova and Firova, and the excitement at the thought of an athletic “kiss-in,” demonstrates that the LGBT athletic community is spoiling for a fight next year in Sochi.

The true drama at next year’s Olympics may very well be on the medal stand. If we hear more from Ryzhova and Firova, I will update this post.* But we can say that much of the press on this has assumed a great deal yet to be confirmed. We can also say that, whether their act was politically conscious or not, as long as repression festers, a kiss tragically, can never be just a kiss.

Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, is the author of Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down. Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” Zirin is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. You can find all of his work at edgeofsports.com and follow him on Twitter: @EdgeofSports.

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