Olympics / Sports

The team from Canada enters Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, during the Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014.(Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Racist tweet by Russian Olympic legend reignites controversy

SOCHI, Russia -- About three hours before the Olympic cauldron was lit Friday night, media at the Fisht Olympic Stadium received a list of names of the past Russian Olympians who would be the final torch bearers.

The list had five names.

There were six final torchbearers.

The missing name was that of Irina Rodnina, the three-time Olympic pairs champion who joined three-time Olympic champion hockey goalie Vladislav Tretiak in igniting the cauldron 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 Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama looking at a banana in an unidentified hand. It is difficult to see the image as anything but racist.

Was giving Rodnina such a prominent place in the ceremony Russia's retribution to the White House for sending an official Olympic delegation of 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, President 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 he White House.

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

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

"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 several years after 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.

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