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Talk of boycotts, politics fight performances for airtime

Gold medallist Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia holds her medal at the women's pole vault victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Champi
Gold medallist Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia holds her medal at the women's pole vault victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Champi

By Mitch Phillips

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Yelena Isinbayeva's silhouette was the image used to sell the world athletics championships to the Russian public and the pole vault queen certainly made an indelible impression on the 14th edition of the event that concluded on Sunday.

On the eve of a threatened retirement and struggling for form she somehow won her third world title to bring the then-slumbering championships to life and finally extract some noise from the disappointingly small Luzhniki Stadium crowd.

Isinbayeva then ignited another fire when she weighed into the debate over her country's controversial anti-gay propaganda law, suggesting there were no homosexuals in "normal" Russia.

"We consider ourselves, like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys ... it comes from the history," she said.

A hastily issued statement saying she was misunderstood because of her poor English, cut little ice but illustrated the fine line international sporting events must tread as they try desperately to steer clear of politics and prevent pressure groups of every hue piggy-backing them to highlight their cause.

Isinbayeva's comments came as she condemned Swedish high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro for painting her nails in rainbow colors as a gesture of support for gay rights.

Isinbayeva, along with most of Russia and the officials running the championships, suggested Green-Tregaro and everyone else attending should abide by the laws of the host nation.

Green-Tregaro competed in the final with plain red nails after officials gently reminded the Swedish federation of the rules banning the wearing of any kind of commercial or political symbol.

British writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry was unimpressed, comparing the anti-gay propaganda law to the Nazis' persecution of the Jews and said the Sochi Games would be in danger of leaving the same "stain on the five rings" as Hitler's 1936 Berlin Games.

U.S. President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying he was "running out of patience" with Russia over the issue.

NO PROBLEM

None of this is new for International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) president Lamine Diack or his potential successor Sebastian Coe, who were at the sharp end in 1980 when an American-led boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to a tit-for-tat east European boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I am against boycotts, I don't think they achieve what they set out to do. They harm only one group - the athletes," said Coe, who won 1,500m gold in both Games having defied a British government call to miss Moscow.

Diack added: "There is a law that exists, it has to be respected, we are here for the world championships and have no problem whatsoever and I'm not worried at all."

Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko also did his best to convince everyone that nobody attending Sochi had anything to fear.

"This law is not intended to deprive people of any religion, race or sexual orientation but to ban the promotion of non-traditional relations among the young generation," he said.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has asked the Russian government for "clarification" and an exact translation so they know how it will affect athletes and fans in Sochi.

The issue is certain to be brought to the fore ahead of the winter Olympics but, seemingly with the broad support of its population, the Russian government does not look likely to be backtracking any time soon.

Of more concern to organizers of Sochi and the 2018 soccer World Cup will have been the appalling attendances in Moscow.

Pre-competition claims to have sold 80 percent of tickets looked reminiscent of the darkest days of Soviet propaganda as morning sessions took place with just a few hundred fans scattered around the 81,000-capacity bowl.

TOTAL SILENCE

Only the presence of two blocks of Ukrainians, dressed in identical blue and yellow T-shirts and flown in specially by a company at home, saved the early action from taking place in total silence.

There should be no such attendance problems in the next two editions as the world championships head to Beijing's Bird's Nest in 2015 and London's Olympic Stadium in 2017.

Even the men's 100 meters final and opening ceremony took place in front of thousands of empty seats in Moscow and only after Isinbayeva's victory, which kick-started a gold medal rush for the host nation, did the home fans get close to filling the stadium and making some noise.

Usain Bolt underlined his position as sport's biggest draw with yet another sprint double, though with his two main rivals, Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake, absent through doping and injury, the lack of any meaningful competition for the Jamaican took some of the excitement from his victories.

Compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce matched him in the women's sprints, also against weakened fields, while another golden 5,000/10,000m double for Mo Farah catapulted the Briton into the very top echelon of distance greats.

After a slow start, the host nation gained momentum with some notable field event victories and a crowd-pleasing win over the United States in the women's 4x400m relay.

However, after two of the relay gold medalists, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova, were photographed engaging in a full lips-on-lips kiss on the podium, the political fallout from the championships is likely to live far longer in the memory than their winning time.

(Editing by Sonia Oxley)

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