Athletics: Anti-gay controversy tarnishes Russia's sporting glory

MOSCOW - Russia on Monday basked in the glory of its triumph at the World Athletics Championships but the event was shadowed by a controversy over homophobia which risks tarnishing its hosting of the Winter Olympics and World Cup.

Russian athletes topped the medals table for the first time since 2001 with seven golds, one more than the United States, boosted by a "super Saturday" where the team enjoyed stunning victories in the women's high jump and 4x400-metres relay.

"Goodbye America!" crowed the Sovietsky Sport daily. "Together we watched a show of world class," added the Sports Express daily.

The Russian success prompted a last-minute surge of interest and crowds of well over 60,000 for the last weekend, though the early days of the championships at Moscow's Luzhniki stadium were burdened by banks of empty seats and a lack of atmosphere.

Triple gold medal winning Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt diplomatically awarded the event a "seven out of ten", saying it was a "different championships, not the best".

Russia's Athletics Federation chief Valentin Balakhnichev said that the Moscow experience had shown the whole conception of the championships needed a rethink.

"We need to look at the brand and understand what will make 70,000 people come and sit for five hours," he told the R-Sport news agency.

By the final weekend, the stadium was caught in a memorable patriotic fervour, with the "Luzhniki roar" whipped up over the PA system by the interventions of Russia's motormouth star sports commentator Dmitry Guberniev.

But no amount of noise could drown out the furore generated by Russia's adoption in June of a law outlawing the dissemination of "propaganda" about homosexuality to minors, which critics have slammed as patently homophobic.

With these championships just the first in a string of major sporting events to be hosted by Russia - ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and football World Cup in 2018 - the controversy risks only intensifying further.

"This story of course is not over," grumbled the Sports Express. "Its peak is going to come at the Sochi Games."

No sooner had Russia's athletics queen Yelena Isinbayeva set the championships alight with her stunning pole vault victory than she walked into a moral minefield by backing the law and slamming Swedish high-jumper Emma Green-Tregaro as "disrespectful" for painting her nails in the rainbow colours of gay rights.

A supporter of the law, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko sparked further controversy by seeming to equate homosexuality with social ills like alcoholism.

"We are seeking to protect minors - and not just from propaganda of non-traditional relations but from many other things.

Like, for example, drug use, alcoholism and smoking. From many bad habits," he told the ITAR-TASS news agency in an interview.

Some believe that Russia did not expect that the law - which appears to have sprung from a "family values" campaign from conservative lawmakers worried about the declining population - would cause such an uproar.

"They had not thought this through," said one high-ranking diplomat in Moscow, suggesting Russia has now put itself into a corner with no way to get out.

As the Western press fumed about Russia's stance on gay rights, Russian newspapers hit back by accusing European and US media of seeking to undermine the sporting achievements by the Russian squad.

The depth of anger was shown by a bizarre nationalist eulogy penned Monday by Sovietsky Sport editor Yury Tsybanev about the superiority of the 4x400-metres female quartet who beat the United States for the gold.

"They were standing on top of the pedestal, our four little blondes, four Russian birch trees, and it was as if the blood of our ancestors boiled in my veins," he said.

"Consider this my answer to those 'rights activists' who started pestering and insulting Lena Isinbayeva," he added.

Balakhnichev was among the few Russian officials to criticise Isinbayeva for her outburst, saying that "a sportsperson of such a level needs to think about what they say and where".