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American runner criticizes Russia's anti-gay law after winning medal in Moscow

After Nick Symmonds won a silver medal at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow, the American distance runner became the first foreign athlete to openly condemn Russia's anti-gay law on Russian soil.

And so far, for what it's worth, he hasn't been incarcerated.

On Tuesday, Symmonds took second in the 800-meter final and dedicated his finish to LGBT friends in America, according to Russian news outlet R-Sport.

"As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them," he said to R-Sport. "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."

Under Russia's law, comments like Symmonds' probably could land the speaker in jail - if a Russian youth were to overhear it.

The legislation, approved by President Vladimir Putin in June, forbids the "promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors." Among things specifically prohibited by the law is information that provides "a distorted picture of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations." By equating gay and straight individuals in his remarks, Symmonds violates that provision, and he's fairly courageous to do so.

"I disagree with their laws and I disagree with their views," the runner told ABC News.

While competing in Moscow, Symmonds was evidently forced to reconcile his outspoken support for LGBT rights with the letter of the Russian law. "I'm trying to tread that fine line of being respectful as a guest in this country and also speaking against some serious injustices that I see," he said to ABC News.

Many other athletes, whether they identify as LGBT or as allies, will face similar challenges in February during the Sochi Winter Olympics. Russia's Interior Ministry made it clear in a statement Monday that it plans to enforce the law during the event, despite recent International Olympic Committee statements to the contrary.

The ministry's statement tried to quell mounting concerns over potential discrimination at the Olympics, saying that "discussion on violating the rights of representatives of nontraditional sexual orientations ...  is totally unfounded and contrived." Russian law enforcement will only be targeting those who express their views on LGBT equality to children.

What is unclear is where the line gets drawn. Olympic ceremonies are broadcast to millions worldwide, including a sizable chunk of Russia's population. Presumably, children will be watching both on television and from the stadium. So if either figure skater Johnny Weir or speed skater Blake Skjellerup were to, say, pull a rainbow flag out of his jacket during the Opening Ceremonies - and both have made statements suggesting this isn't so far-fetched - could they be arrested? And would they be?

The IOC has already made it clear that athletes and coaches could be disqualified from Olympic competition for a "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda." But the organization hasn't given a straight answer about whether being visibly out and proud qualifies as propaganda. Neither have Russian officials. With six months to go until the torch is carried into Sochi, it's still unclear whether Olympic athletes and spectators face jail time for as little as a rainbow flag pin.

For now, it's athletes like Symmonds who are negotiating the boundaries of Russia's anti-LGBT law. With the IOC waffling and the Russian government far from backing down, it's refreshing to finally see someone taking a stand.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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