A kiss is still a kiss: The upshot of upstaging and undermining

Guest post by Joan O’Connell

A picture paints a thousand words; even if they’re entirely makey-uppey words.

Over the weekend, the Anglophone internet had a bit of a conniption over this image of two Russian athletes kissing on a podium at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow. (Some parts of the internet went with this image of the same two athletes on the track just after their gold medal win in the 4x400m relay, erroneously referring it to a podium kiss.)

The image struck a chord. At a time when much attention is on anti-LGBT laws and attitudes in Russia, the image was seized upon by internet audiences and headline writers alike. Among the fastest out of the starting blocks was Sky News with their unambiguous headline, “Russian athletes kiss in protest at anti-gay law”. Where Sky News and pals led, others followed. Soon, however, some of the headlines were more vague, phrased as questions (“Celebratory kiss or a statement?”), inferences (“Russian podium kiss an apparent defiance of anti-gay law”) or more tenuously linking the kiss to ongoing debates (“Russian athletes’ kiss raises questions over LGBT law”).

The Sky News URL now re-directs to a story headlined “Russia: Anti-gay row “invented” by Western media”. And it seems the Russian Minister for Sport is not far off the mark. This video of the medal ceremony, posted by francetvinfo, shows quite clearly that all four members of the relay team (not just the two who happened to be cleverly snapped by Getty and pals) simply exchanged kisses of celebration, before the playing of the Russian national anthem.

Viewing the footage of the medal ceremony, it seems to me that cultural traditions (a customary kiss of congratulations) plus photography (and its inherent selectivity) combined with photo editors who know what sells (hot chicks lock lips!) and writers and audiences who are all too recently concerned with what is happening to LGBT people in Russia. The result is that a gold medal victory is upstaged by something that has nothing to do with it, and that real issues regarding people who are adversely affected by politicking are undermined.

Joan O’Connell (@joan_ie) is currently completing a Masters in international security and conflict studies. Previously she worked with refugees in Ireland for several years, and until September 2011 was a contributing editor with Gaelick.com. This article is written in a personal capacity.