American runner Nick Symmonds won the 800-meter silver medal at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow Tuesday, but it is his decision to dedicate the award to his gay and lesbian friends at home that is drawing international attention.
Symmonds’ provocative move comes as Russia endures fierce international condemnation in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for passing three laws that criminalize “pro-gay” behavior or "propaganda," ban adoption of Russian children by homosexual couples and parents who support gay marriage and allow for foreign nationals to be arrested, detained and deported if they are deemed to be homosexual or “pro-gay.”
Symmonds’ statements against the laws, which he offered after the race while still inside Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, reportedly make him the first athlete to openly denounce and criticize the anti-gay laws while on Russian soil.
"As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality, however God made them," Symmonds said following his win, according to The Guardian newspaper of London. "Whether you're gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there's anything I can do to champion the cause and further it I will, shy of getting arrested. … I respect Russians' ability to govern their people. I disagree with their laws."
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But his words may fall on deaf ears, as Russia continues to enforce the laws, arrest gay citizens and even visitors, crack down on gay rights rallies, and turn a blind eye to beatings of gay Russians. Anti-gay Russian lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, a chief sponsor, even warns that enforcement will lead to gay and “pro-gay” athletes and tourists attending the Sochi Winter Olympics being detained for 15 days and deported.
The 29-year-old Symmonds is quickly becoming a hero to people around the world who oppose Russia’s draconian laws.
The Tuesday remarks were not the first Symmonds has made in opposition to Russia’s anti- "gay propaganda” laws, as he wrote an Aug. 6 web post for Runner’s World’s explaining his stance on the issue.
“As an American, I believe in freedom of speech and equality for all, and therefore disagree with the laws that Russia has put in place,” he wrote. “Given that I am currently residing in London, I will say, once again, that our LGBT neighbors deserve all the same rights as the rest of us.”
But the fact that he spoke out while in Russia, in a stadium, may have come as a surprise to readers of that Runner’s World piece, as he declared that “the playing field is not a place for politics,” and wrote that he would not broach the topic again in his blog about the World Championships.
“However, as an American who is about to reside in Moscow for 12 days, this will be the last time I will mention this subject,” he wrote last week. “I say this not out of fear of prosecution by the Russian government, but out of respect for the fact that I will be a guest in the host nation.”
In speaking out against the anti-gay laws, Symmonds joins a growing protest movement that has seen a number of American, Canadian and Australian gay bars stop serving Russian vodka brands like Zyr and Stolichnaya in protest of the Russian government’s crackdown on gays and gay rights supporters.
In his less-provocative moments, Symmonds is an accomplished runner and a major star in the running world. He ran the 800 in the last two Summer Olympics and took fifth place last year in London, and his silver Tuesday in Russia is the first world athletics championships medal an American man has taken in the 800 in 16 years.
Born in Sun Valley, Idaho, Symmonds won multiple state championships in various track events before going on to attend Oregon’s Willamette University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He was a stellar college athlete, winning the 800-meter NCAA championship all four years of college, and the 1,500-meter NCAA championship in his freshman, junior and senior years.
Described by some as the “Brad Pitt of track,” Symmonds, who is now based in Eugene, Ore., made headlines in 2012 when he went out on a date with celebrity hotel heiress Paris Hilton after asking her father Rick for permission to ask her out, according to the Huffington Post, which reported that after their date they went on to text and email back and forth for some time.
Symmonds, who is considered to be very outspoken for a runner, also generated controversy in 2012, when he offered space on his left arm via an eBay auction to be tattooed with the logo of the highest-bidding company, which turned out to be the Hanson Dodge Creative ad agency, which paid $11,000 for the privilege of having him tattoo their Twitter handle on his arm, OutSports.com reported.
Symmonds made the unusual move in a protest against what he believes are overly restrictive rules around athlete’s rights to earn money through marketing, but his efforts have not been successful in changing the rules about athletes marketing themselves, and he has to cover the tattoo with tape when participating in certain races.
He is also a beer enthusiast, writing fondly about the frothy beverage on his Runner’s World blog, and he even holds the U.S. record for the “Beer Mile,” an event in which competitors drink a beer, then run a lap four times in succession without the clock stopping. His American-best time of 5:19 in 2012 is just 10 seconds behind the 5:19 world record, set by Canadian Jim Finlayson in 2007, Runner’s World reports.
And Symmonds’ life is not all running and serious statements, as he also has time to be funny, as evidenced by the “About Nick” page on his website, where he lists the following “Fun Facts”:
· Nick is quicker than 99.9% of the population.
· Nick’s favorite shoes are his Nike Victory Elites and Nike Zoom Mambas.
· As a Beer Mile Champ Nick is even faster if there’s a cold one at the finish line.
· Nick’s pet bunny is named Mortimer.
· Nick is a self-proclaimed “foodie.” (Not an easy thing to be when you’re in training.)
· Off the track Nick adores the outdoors as an avid fisherman, hunter and hiker.
· Nick is also very comfortable in the water – many weekends he can be found surfing and paddling.
Click this link to visit Symmonds’s personal website and learn more about the American track star.