American Runner Wins in Russia, Criticizes Anti-Gay Law

Nick Symmonds dedicates his medal to gay friends.

ByABC News
August 14, 2013, 8:25 AM

MOSCOW Aug. 14, 2013— -- American runner Nick Symmonds became the first foreign athlete to criticize Russia's new anti-gay law on Russian soil shortly after winning a silver medal at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow.

"I disagree with their laws and I disagree with their views," he told ABC News.

Symmonds said he would like to wear a rainbow flag pin during competitions to show his support for gay rights in Russia and around the world, but quickly added, "They've made it very clear that will land you in jail."

"I'm trying to tread that fine line of being respectful as a guest in this country and also speaking against some serious injustices that I see," he said. "As adamant as I am about this issue, I don't know what me sitting in jail is good for."

On Tuesday night, Symmonds burst out of the pack after the final turn to snag the silver medal in dramatic fashion in the 800 meters final. Afterward, he dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends.

"I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them," he told the Russian sports website R-Sport, according to RIA Novosti.

Symmonds has long been a vocal supporter of gay rights.

"This has been an issue that has been personal for me. From day one I've always spoken out against this one. It's just so ludicrous you would give rights to some people and not to others," he told ABC News.

"It was just such a slap in the face I couldn't sit back and watch it happen to some of my friends," he added.

Earlier this month, Symmonds was criticized by some gay rights supporters for writing on his blog that he would not criticize the law during the world championships.

"The playing field is not a place for politics," he wrote on Runner's World on Aug. 6.

His comments came amid a growing concern that foreign athletes and fans attending international sporting events in Russia, including next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi, could be prosecuted under the law.

The law, passed in June, bans "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relationships" to minors. While the law is ambiguously written, many fear it will be used to persecute homosexuals and their supporters. In practice, it could outlaw even speaking about homosexuality around children or wearing gay pride symbols in public. Violators face steep fines and jail time. Foreigners face similar penalties plus deportation.

The law has sparked outrage overseas, including calls to boycott Russian products like vodka. Others have even called for a boycott of the Sochi games themselves.

The International Olympic Committee said it has received assurances from top Russian officials that athletes and fans are safe from the law, but Russian officials have sent mixed signals. On Monday, Russia's Interior Ministry said the law would remain in effect during the games.

The head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, said last Friday that the IOC was now seeking "clarification" from Russia about how the law would be applied to Olympic guests. The IOC, meanwhile, has reportedly made clear that athletes are prohibited from publicly advocating political positions during the games and could be penalized if they do.