Russian Olympic figure skater sorry for Obama banana tweet

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Moscow

image sourceAFP
image captionIrina Rodnina lit the Olympic flame with fellow Russian former triple gold medallist Vladislav Tretiak

Irina Rodnina is a sporting legend. A 10-time figure skating world champion, a triple Olympic gold medallist.

Last September, though, she was in the headlines for less sporting reasons.

A doctored image appeared on her personal Twitter account. It showed Barack and Michelle Obama staring at someone who was waving a banana.

The US ambassador to Moscow accused Ms Rodnina of "outrageous behaviour".

At the time she rejected all the criticism, tweeting: "Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups."

The Olympic flame lighting ceremony in Sochi re-ignited the controversy, with US media speculating that her inclusion was a deliberate dig at the White House.

Now, five months after the picture appeared, Irina Rodnina has said she is sorry.

In a new tweet she wrote: "I respect the Obama family and apologise for not clearly stating earlier that I don't support the tweeted photo or racism in any form."

In a second message she explained her "account was hacked and I should have shown better judgement in my initial response and handling of the event".


Speaking to me from Sochi, the former champion skater, who is now an MP for Russia's party of power, United Russia, tried to set the record straight.

"I wrote those tweets yesterday because I realised that many Americans were upset by this," she told me.

image sourceGetty Images
image captionIrina Rodnina says critics of Russia have been searching for scandal in Sochi

"I wrote that I respect your president. But what happened has happened. So I apologise."

But she clearly struggles to understand why the original image was offensive.

"People react to things in different ways. To me, and I'm just a normal person, a banana doesn't arouse any political or any other kind of emotions," she said.

"If someone reacts negatively to pictures of bananas, then perhaps we should stop eating lots of other kinds of food."

'Information war'

"It's a photograph of the president and the first lady.

"How many times have photographers posted rather unflattering images of famous people, including presidents?

"That kind of thing happens. So, in fact, what's happening around Sochi is an information war."

I pointed out that while she may not be insulted by bananas, other people were.

In Russia there have been cases of black athletes being taunted with bananas, an indication of the level of racism here.

image sourceGetty Images
image captionIrina Rodnina won gold with Alexander Zaitsev at Lake Placid in 1980

"In Russia we never encountered such concerns in the past. Because, historically, here there were virtually no native representatives of the Negro race," she said.

"The only black people were those who came to study in our country. But bananas were imported from other countries. So we never made a connection.

"If a player reacts like that, that is their perception of things. It means you have this problem inside you, that makes you feel humiliated."

Ms Rodnina maintains that the spotlight has been on her because critics of Russia have been searching for scandal in Sochi.

"The Western media wanted to report something bad about Russia," she claimed, "but there was nothing bad to write about, because the opening ceremony was so breathtaking. I gave the media something to write about."

Related Topics

More on this story