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August 17, 2013

Isinbayeva ‘misunderstood’

MOSCOW — Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva’s comments on her country’s law against gay “propaganda” seemed as unequivocal as the bar-clearing jump that won her the world championship: She supported the law and derided gays.

But on Friday, Isinbayeva said that her comments, in somewhat fractured English the day before, may have been misunderstood and that she opposes any discrimination against gays.

The clarification — or U-turn — underlined the sensitivity of the issue for Russia as international criticism of the law persists and calls continue for a boycott of next February’s Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi.

The Olympics, like the world championships where Isinbayeva won gold and made her comments, are part of a series of major sports events that Russia hopes will showcase the country as sophisticated and forward-looking. The propaganda law has instead provoked criticism that Russia is retreating from the modern world.

Isinbayeva’s comments were especially dicey for Russia’s image. Not only is she an internationally popular athlete both for her skills and exuberance, but she is also the “mayor” of one of Sochi’s two Olympic villages, an honorary but symbolic and visible role.

“She is a very recognized figure around the world. And I think she should be thinking of what she is saying,” said Nikolai Alexeyev, Russia’s most prominent gay-rights activist. “I am not surprised that the story is starting to develop and she has to find an excuse for what she said.”

In a news conference on Thursday, the two-time Olympic gold medalist supported the Russian law and criticized two Swedish competitors for their rainbow-colored fingernails in support of gay rights.

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

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