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August 20, 2013

How About “Nyet”: Explaining the Russian Gold Medal Sprinter’s “Gay Protest” Podium Kiss

To the extent photos of Russian sprinters Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova deserve worldwide attention, it’s for the teaching moment about the dangers of reading into a still image.

I thought the instances of Obama (supposedly) ogling a female G-8 intern, or more relevant to today’s example, a couple (supposedly) making out in the middle of a riot presented classic case studies of news photos taken wildly out context based on the camera freezing an instant in time. Those are merely silver medals, however, compared to the golden misread made by countless prominent national and international sites this week.

Given the early fomenting over Russian anti-homosexuality laws and the impending showdown in Sochi over gay rights, who would doubt they were looking at anything but a premeditated protest by two Russian female sprinters, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova of the Russian 4×400-meter relay team,  engaged in a pronounced and passionate kissed on the victory stand after their team won gold at the World Athletics Championship in Moscow?

And who would doubt the bravery and audacity of such an act, obviously in solidarity with homosexual everywhere, especially when Emma Green Tregaro (of Sweden) created her own protest during these games by wearing (and Instagramming) rainbow painted nails?

What’s also telling is how the newswires, offering a full range of close-ups, enabled news publishers to offer more and more isolated and seemingly more sensual versions of the interchange.

Demonstrating just how much sex sells, Yahoo still used the very hot version above to illustrate the story that finally emerged of the sprinters refuting the interpretation with disgust.

Now, three days later, Ryzhova is saying there was no such statement intended. “There was no hidden political motive,” she said, and then blamed the Western media for creating and spreading an inaccurate story. “Instead of congratulating the athletes, they decided to insult not only Yulia but the whole (Russian) athletics federation.”

Instead, the kiss, a common practice among Russian women, came from celebration, not protest. “For eight years we have not won a gold medal. You can’t even imagine what it was like … when we understood that we’d won,” Ryzhova said. “It was a wave of unbelievable feelings and if somehow, completely by chance, while we were congratulating each other, our lips touched … whoever fantasizes about that is sick.”

The protest scenario also wears starts to thin as we see multiple instances of celebration, not just the supposedly choice-timed moment during the platform ceremony but also congratulatory pecks immediately following the race.

Not that the multitude of sites that touted these images, and the supposition that it involved a protest, however, stopped to clarify the different contexts and instances, such as whether the women were still on the track or not, or had their warm-ups on or off. (Notice in the Slate screenshot above, for instance, that the headline alludes to the award ceremony while the photo paired with it is from a post-race scene on the track. (Of course, the shots immediately post-race with all the skin are far sexier, especially the whole body versions.)

Another thing to add is that these assumptions don’t incubate in a vaccum.

The skimpy uniforms, the sculpted bodies and the  larger edit accentuating these elements from every auspicious angle directly lend themselves to the more sexualized interpretation.

But back to the widely published shot leading the post above. What makes the still, and the gay protest scenario so convincing, is not just the Ryzhova-Firova contact, but also the body language of the other two sprinters, Gushchina and Krivoshapka, in that exact instant. Even if the real-time video renders those looks completely incidental, it’s very difficult to look at this still, with the protest scenario in mind, without interpreting the look on the other two women’s faces as anything but surprise and shock.

…Whoops, did I forget to supply you the video?

If the legacy of these photos is egg on the face of every publisher that misinterpreted or exploited them, or worse, that they never get clarified, then there is also the question: who really did make out from the media orgy? Besides Reuters and Getty, which come out clean with generic captions, I’d say … it’s Toyota.

(photo 1, 3, 4 & 7: Grigory Dukor/Reuters. caption 1: Gold medalists team Russia kiss and celebrate at the women’s 4×400 metres relay victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow August 17, 2013. From left: Yulia Gushchina, Kseniya Ryzhova, Tatyana Firova and Antonina Krivoshapka. caption 4: Gold medalists team Russia kiss and celebrate at the women’s 4×400 metres relay victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow August 17, 2013. From left: Yulia Gushchina, Kseniya Ryzhova, Tatyana Firova and Antonina Krivoshapka. photo 5: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images. caption: Russia’s Kseniya Ryzhova (L) and Russia’s Tatyana Firova celebrate after winning the women’s 4×400 metres relay final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on August 17, 2013. photo 6: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images. caption: Russia’s Kseniya Ryzhova, Russia’s Tatyana Firova, Russia’s Yulia Gushchina and Russia’s Antonina Krivoshapka celebrate after winning the women’s 4×400 metres relay final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on August 17, 2013.)

  • black_dog_barking

    Every picture tells a story don’t it. (Been listening to an old Rod Stewart song lately.)

    And so the intense provocation beaming from the first image vanishes without a trace when the full motion video reveals a quartet of young athletes drenched in giddy triumph embracing one another in their due moment of recognition. Whoever’s responsible for somehow seeing politcal protest in this moment is not worthy of our attention and should lose whatever access he has to news production. He should be made to wear earphones. (Am always listening to old Dylan songs.)

  • bks3bks
  • Scarabus

    Can’t help wondering what percentage of those contributing to the brouhaha really believed these photos depicted a daring and courageous symbolic “statement,” and what percentage knew better and just cynically exploited the incident. [Yes, I do realize those are not the only options. ☺]

    Athletes and others do use their celebrity to make dramatically controversial statements for or against causes they consider important. I still remember the seismic effect when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. I was watching our small Sears black & white TV when the first films were shown.

    On the other hand, one really ought to consider the cultural context of what one sees in person or in pictures. For example, the rainbow-painted fingernails can be accepted as deliberately symbolic. Not so with a kiss – for example, a U.S. president exchanging kissed with a Saudi prince. In Italy, where I lived for a short while, for older girls or women to hold hands usually does not mean they are lesbians.

    *Proofreading, I noticed that I began the paragraph after the comment about the raised fists with “on the other hand.” Oy.

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