SOCHI, Russia — A controversy has ignited over the selection of three-time Olympic pairs champion Irina Rodnina of Russia to light the Olympic flame.
Rodnina joined compatriot Vladislav Tretiak, the three-time champion hockey goalie, in ending the torch relay by setting ablaze the cauldron that will burn in Olympic Park until Feb. 23.
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 torchbearers.
"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, already had deleted the tweet before this most recent firestrom. At the time it was posted, she claimed the picture came from friends in the United States, where she lived and coached several years after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
When the post first was 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.