Russia relay team wins gold medal

Russia's Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kiss during the women's 4x400-meter relay victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow. (Grigory Dukor, Reuters / August 17, 2013)

Let's start with facts: Two members of the Russian women's 4x400-meter relay team, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova, kissed on the podium after their team won gold Saturday at the World Athletics Championship in Moscow.

The smooch sparked a huge response, with many on Twitter and in several media outlets (especially Spanish-language ones, judging by my search last night) framing it as a protest against Russia's "gay propaganda" law.

It may have been a stand of solidarity with the LGBT community. It may have been, as Russian sources told Sky News, a celebratory gesture - especially since another photo shows the pair kissing shortly after winning their race. Then again, perhaps they wanted to take a stand twice, and Sky News' sources are doing damage control.

I'm not sure it really matters, since the debate over motives has drawn even more attention to how athletes must stifle their beliefs in the face of Russia's growing anti-gay attitudes and sports organizations' insistence on apoliticism.

The IAAF World Athletics Championships have been the first major test of how Russian legislation prohibiting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" would impact athletes competing in Russia and on the world stage. With the Sochi Olympics in six months, questions about how (or if) the law will be enforced are numerous.

The track-and-field competition hasn't provided answers about potential arrests and deportations - at least not public ones. But it has exposed how absurdly insistent sporting organizations are on keeping sports in a vacuum.

Ryzhova and Firova's kiss came days after Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva criticized a Swedish competitor for painting her fingernails rainbow in support of the LGBT community. Isinbayeva also said Russians considered themselves "normal, standard" people who "just live boys with woman, woman with boys."

Since making those remarks, Isinbayeva has backtracked somewhat and said she was misunderstood because she was speaking in English and not her native Russian. (Take note: That was not an apology.)

Her Swedish peer, Emma Green Tregaro, has swapped out her nail polish for an apolitical red, because the Swedish track and field federation asked her to. Apparently the IAAF, track's governing body, warned the Swedes that Green Tregaro's nail polish may have violated its code of conduct - despite a statement from a spokesman citing the organization's "belief in free expression as a basic human right, which means we must respect the opinions of both Green Tregaro and Isinbayeva."

Apparently not. It turns out free expression is only acceptable when it's taken off the track and out of view. The International Olympic Committee has taken much the same stance, saying competitors could be disqualified from the Winter Games for making demonstrations in Sochi. Both groups' policies have tough implications for athletes who wish to compete as out, proud Olympians.

Of course, neither group's "shut up and compete" dictum is as oppressive a law that threatens to imprison Russians for expressing their views on equality. But the IAAF and IOC's policies are similarly archaic.

As they arrive in Russia over the next few months, LGBT athletes and their allies will be in a position to draw attention to the plights of Russians being silenced, attacked and tortured. If competitors choose to engage in gestures as small as a rainbow flag pin or multicolored nail polish, what business do international sports federations have stopping them?