Homophobia and Empty Seats Plague the World Athletics Championships

Even a legendary sprinter and a promising future couldn’t wipe out the damage to human rights and empty stands. A summary of the World Championships

Amir Inbar
Amir Inbar
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Amir Inbar
Amir Inbar

The finishing line

Whichever way you turn it round, athletics tournaments are judged by the short sprints. In recent years these have become synonymous with Jamaica, mostly thanks to Usain Bolt. The Moscow World Championships supplied new names, but they too, were made in Jamaica. Even when Yohan Blake is injured and Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson are suspended, Jamaica produced more and more sprinters from what seems as an endless source of talent. Thus, four of the five fastest runners in the 100-meter sprint, and three of the first four in the 200 meters were all born in the Caribbean island, which also dominated the women's sprints with gold medals in 100 and 200 meters, and the relays, thanks to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Jamaica is a superpower, even if some questions are raised as to some of its practices.

Bolt is a class above everyone else, even when he isn't at his best. He doesn't even need to be at his best. The lightening bolt, which suddenly appeared on the scene five years ago, is still exciting and impressive in the simple way he conjures up more victories. There are so many wonderful, inspiring races and battles for medals throughout the championships, but the attraction of the classic sprints — and Bolt's personality — add to their lure, even when it is crystal clear that nobody can touch him, and that he isn't in world-record form. Many believe that Bolt is single-handedly carrying the attraction of athletics: If that's true, it doesn't seem to weigh him down at all.

From Russia with love

Two weeks after the end of the Swimming World Championships, as the Russians continue to drown — in comparison to their past glory, Russian athletics is in good form. True, the fact that Russia tops the medals list is somewhat misleading — the United States won more medals, the Russians more gold — but there's nothing equivocal about its capability to produce brilliant athletes. Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva is indeed retiring, but Aleksandr Menkov (long jump) Dmitriy Tarabin (javelin) and Ekaterina Koneva (triple jump) moved to center stage. Add the walkers and the depth in the squad, which promises success in the relays, and one can easily see that Russia is still an athletic superpower.

Among the younger Russians, Menkov, 22, particularly stood out. His performance in the final caused the impression that maybe he is the one who can help turn the spotlight back to the long jump. Menkov was one of a number of athletes who hinted at where the future lies. Ukrainian Bohdan Bondarenko brought his meteoric rise to the high jump, setting one of the three championship records and signaling to future exciting battles with Mutaz Essa Barshim, and maybe even a challenge to the existing world record. German Raphael Holzdeppe proved to Renaud Lavillenie that the pole vault is now an open event, and both young jumpers can now offer some marvelous duels. Brianna Rollins too, has launched what might be an ongoing duel with Sally Pearson in the 100 meters hurdles. While teenage athletes usually do not excel in these events, there were some notable exceptions: 18-year-old Kenyan Conselsus Kipruto in the 3,000 meters steeplechase; 19-year-old Ethiopian Mohammad Aman in the 800 meters; Hagos Genrhiwet, another 19-year-old Ethiopian, in the 5,000 meters; and 19-year-old Adam Gemili, who trimmed 0.32 seconds from his personal best in two 200-meters heats to become only the second Briton to go under the 20-second barrier. Some of these young athletes were previously unknown; others made great progress in their career. For athletics, these World Championships offered a glimpse to the future.

Where are you from?

Hanna Knyazyeva-Minenko did not manage to win a medal for Israel, but naturalized athletes can be found all over. Sweden's only medal was won by Ethiopian-born Abeba Aregawi, a new Swedish citizen, who grabbed gold in the 1,500 meters. The Netherlands’ greatest achievement was the silver medal in the long jump, by Ghanaian-born Ignisious Gaisah, who only recently began representing his adopted home for the past 12 years. And despite representing Norway for years now, it's still strange to see Gambian-born Jaysuma Saidy Ndure compete under the Norwegian flag.

What's it to us?

Many empty seats in the evening finals and semifinals, and almost empty stands in the morning events — with all due respect to excuses such as the weather, Moscow obviously did not embrace the World Championships.

Does it really matter? Should a large event not take place in a city or country that can't fill a stadium for nine consecutive days? Ultimately, Russia boasts a tradition in sports and is worthy to host such tournaments. Nobody could really prophecies how many fans would show up.

From Russia, without love

Still, not everything is rosy, when we consider future sport events in Russia. High jumper Emma Green Tregaro, who painted her fingernails in rainbow colors to support gay rights and protest the Russian "Gay Propaganda" law, was one of two Swedish athletes to do so, a move that provoked a miserable response from Isinbayeva ("We just live boys with women, women with boys"). Whoever hoped to find the fingernails of dissent in the finals was disappointed. Tregaro was told by the heads of the Swedish delegation that her little gesture might be considered a violation of the competition’s code of conduct. "I decided to paint them red instead, for love," she explained the forced change.

There's not too much love in this story, mostly hatred and misunderstanding. One can discuss in length the separation between sports and politics, and the need to respect the laws of the host state, but if athletes are already dragged to a country where basic human rights are violated, it is unfair and improper to demand that they remain silent.

Some of the Athletes in Moscow — too few — refused to remain silent. The Swedish high jumpers, U.S. silver medal winner in the 800 meters Nick Symmonds, and the two Russian winners Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova who kissed on the podium, all made their case clear. Still, Symmonds said he might be thrown into jail for his remarks, and the Swedish delegation was fast to quell the fingernail protest. One can't silence everyone all the time. All organizers of large sports events in Russia must be made aware of this: Russia, you're not alone in the world.

Jamaican gold and silver medalists at World Athletic Champinoship in Moscow August, 2013.Credit: Reuters