Irina Rodnina lit the torch at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, but in doing so has ignited a controversy about her allegedly racist past.
The Russian figure skater had shared a racially insensitive doctored photo of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Twitter last September, showing Obama with a mouth full of food next to his wife behind a fake image of a banana. Rodnina took down the photo quickly but refused to apologize, even when the racist photo went viral.
On Saturday, the Sochi Olympics CEO defended the decision to pick Irini Rodnina, saying the move was not about politics.
“She is a three-time Olympic champion, one of the most respected in the world of Olympic athletes,” organizing committee president and CEO Dmitriy Chernyshenko said during a regularly scheduled news conference. “I want to stress that Olympics is not about politics, and any political talks about discussions are inappropriate.”
But many followers believe the decision was indeed politically motivated as the nations have traded passive-aggressive barbs. Obama has been critical of Russia’s recently passed anti-gay law, which outlaws public displays of homosexuality in the name of protecting the nation’s children.
Obama chose not to attend the Sochi Olympics, instead sending a delegation of three openly gay athletes.
Tensions also grew this week when two former members of the band Pussy Riot, who were jailed in Russia for protesting President Vladimir Putin, traveled to the United States and met with several political delegates, including UN ambassador Samantha Powers.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams also declined to address the controversy, saying Irina Rodnina has an impressive resume in her sport..
“Clearly, this is not the IOC that chooses torch bearers, but she was chosen for what she’s done in sport,” Adams said. “She’s a triple gold medalist and she has done a great deal of work in sport. It was a decision Sochi took as it did with all the torch bearers.”
Irina Rodnina had lived in the United States for several years but now is a member of Russian parliament. She refused to apologize for the racist Obamas photo last year, saying here opponents were simply trying to stir up political turmoil.