Was a kiss just a kiss?

Athletes can--and should--have a major role in challenging Russia's bigoted anti-gay laws.

"A TOMMIE Smith/John Carlos moment." My inbox became flooded recently with variations of that phrase after two Russian 4X400 gold medalists, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova, kissed on the medal stand at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin Dave Zirin is the coauthor, with John Carlos, of The John Carlos Story, and author of Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love and A People's History of Sports in the United States, as well as two collections of his sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. He is a columnist for TheNation.com; his writings are also featured at his Edge of Sports Web site.

This led to widespread pronouncements--not speculation, but pronouncements--that their kiss was in fact a protest against Russia's recent brutal wave of anti-LGBT legislation. People across the world, alarmed at the repression and violence in Russia, were comparing the kiss with ecstatic joy to that moment in Mexico City in 1968, when Carlos and Smith raised their black gloves to the heavens in the name of anti-racism and universal human rights.

This enthusiasm was understandable. The still photos of Ryzhova and Firova appeared like a dramatic rebuke of Vladamir Putin's criminalization of LGBT life. The kiss also came on the heels of protest efforts at the Championships by Swedish athletes Emma Green-Tregaro and Moa Hjelmer--who painted their fingernails in rainbow hues--as well as public statements of solidarity from U.S. 800 meter runner Nick Symmonds. Symmonds dedicated his silver medal to his LGBT friends back home saying, "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."

With the coming Sochi Olympics and calls to boycott Russia, ban Russia from competition, or use the Olympics as a protest staging ground for Pride marches and athletic activism, there is simply no arena more alive with resistance to Russia's draconian legislation than sports. This can be best understood as the culmination of a historically unprecedented level of confidence amongst LGBT athletes and allies. As Robbie Rogers, out and proud professional soccer player proclaimed, "It's awesome to be part of a movement that's changing the world."

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ALL THAT said, the question of whether the kiss between Ryzhova and Firova was a conscious act of political rebellion is just that: a question. The Metro newspaper in the UK quoted an unnamed source in their camp who described it as "just kissing, not protesting against anti-gay laws." The source could be saying this to protect them and keep the track stars out of Russian interrogation or prison, but perhaps not.

The video of the "kiss" tells a different story than the dramatic still images. These are quick pecks, in line with Russian custom. All four runners, in fact, give each other kisses. Even more importantly, the crowd, cheering on the gold medalists, doesn't respond to their actions as if anything unusual actually happened. There is just a continual wave of cheers. Compare that to the reaction to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists: the crowd goes completely silent, followed by heckles and jeers.

It certainly matters whether the act was a conscious moment of protest, particularly because, as Smith and Carlos learned, it's far more dangerous to protest your own country than traveling abroad as a non-citizen to express dissent, even in Russia where tourists can be detained for promoting "gay propaganda." But conscious or not, the international outpouring of support and affection for Ryzhova and Firova, and the excitement at the thought of an athletic "kiss-in," demonstrates that the LGBT athletic community is spoiling for a fight next year in Sochi.

The true drama at next year's Olympics may very well be on the medal stand. If we hear more from Ryzhova and Firova, I will update this post. But we can say that much of the press on this has assumed a great deal yet to be confirmed. We can also say that, whether their act was politically conscious or not, as long as repression festers, a kiss tragically, can never be just a kiss.

First published at TheNation.com.