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Russia denies politics involved in choice of Rodnina as torchbearer

Irina Rodnina, a past Olympic champion, had a doctored Obama photo on Twitter. Officials say her participation wasn't a statement.

February 08, 2014|By Philip Hersh
  • Russia's torchbearers Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak prepare to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony on Friday.
Russia's torchbearers Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretyak prepare… (Matt Slocum / AFP / Getty…)

SOCHI, Russia — About three hours before the Olympic caldron was lighted Friday night, media at the Fisht Olympic Stadium received a list of names of the past Russian Olympians who would be the final torchbearers.

The list had five names.

There were six final torchbearers.

The missing name was that of Irina Rodnina, the three-time Olympic figure skating pairs champion who joined three-time Olympic champion hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak in igniting the caldron that will burn in the Olympic Park until Feb. 23.

Given the controversy that has erupted over Rodnina's selection for that role, was the omission an attempt to delay criticism?

If so, it didn't buy much time.

Last September, Rodnina's Twitter account included an obviously doctored photo of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama looking at a banana in an unidentified hand in what many have seen as a racist image.

Was giving Rodnina such a prominent place in the ceremony Russia's retribution to the White House for selecting an official Olympic delegation that included three openly gay athletes in a country that passed anti-gay legislation last summer?

Asked by NBC's Bob Costas in a Friday interview about the composition of the delegation, Obama replied, "There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief executive of the Sochi Organizing Committee, and Konstantin Ernst, the Russian producer of the opening ceremony, denied Rodnina's participation was a statement to the White House.

"I want to stress that the Olympics is not about politics, and any political talks and discussions are inappropriate for the Olympic Games," Chernyshenko said.

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said the IOC had nothing to do with the choice of torchbearers.

"We are focused on competition. We decline to comment on this," U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said.

When the image was posted, Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, reacted on his Twitter account with a strong condemnation, saying Rodnina's post was "outrageous behavior, which only brings shame to her parliament and country."

Rodnina, who belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin's political party and is a member of the Russian parliament, had already deleted the tweet before this most recent firestorm. At the time it was posted, she claimed the picture came from friends in the United States, where she has lived and coached for several years since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.

When the post was first criticized, Rodnina reacted by saying, "Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups," according to multiple news accounts.

In a post to her Twitter account early Saturday morning, Rodnina said only that she had received "numerous wishes, greetings and kind words" and offered her thanks.

Twitter: @olyphil

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