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Nick Symmonds: Russian law sparks 'defining civil rights movement'

updated 1:22 PM EDT, Fri August 16, 2013
Nick Symmonds won a silver medal in the 800 meters at the world championships.
Nick Symmonds won a silver medal in the 800 meters at the world championships.
  • U.S. runner Nick Symmonds slams Russia's controversial anti-gay propaganda law
  • He says the law has sparked "the defining civil rights movement of our time"
  • His comments come after Yelena Isinbayeva appeared to defend the law

(CNN) -- Russia's controversial anti-gay propaganda law has sparked the "defining civil rights movement of our time" according to U.S. athlete Nick Symmonds.

The recently implemented law has been criticized by U.S. President Barack Obama and there have been calls by some to boycott next year's winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.

It bars "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors" and so effectively prevents gay people from expressing their sexuality in public.

"As an American who believes in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly I take huge offense that the Russian government is limiting their people in that way," Symmonds told CNN Friday.

Already a talking point at the track and field world championships in Moscow, the issue intensified when one of Russia's greatest athletes, Yelena Isinbayeva, appeared to back her nation's stance Thursday.

Read: Why Sochi is now a battleground for gay rights

"If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people," Isinbayeva said in English at a press conference. "We just live boys with woman, women with boys."

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After the pole vaulter was criticized, too -- Symmonds was one of those who took offense -- she backtracked Friday, claiming she had been misunderstood as English wasn't her first language.

But even before Isinbayeva's comments, Symmonds had stated his disapproval with the law in his blog for Runner's World -- though he promised to not discuss the subject during the championships.

However he "couldn't stay silent anymore" after watching a CNN story that showed two Russian women shoved to the ground after they appeared to kiss each other in the street.

It was "based on nothing more than they wanted to express their love for each other," he told CNN. "I was just appalled."

Symmonds dedicated the silver medal he won in the 800 meters Tuesday to his gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender friends in the U.S., British newspaper the Independent reported.

"This is the defining civil rights movement of our time," Symmonds told CNN. "I just want to say in 100 years when people look back on this moment, the people who are against equality and against love are going to be remembered on the wrong side of history.

"And I'm honored to be standing alongside our gay and lesbian friends on the right side of history."

He isn't the only competitor at the world championships supporting gay rights.

Swedish high-jumper Emma Green Tregaro and sprinter Mao Hjelmer wore rainbow-colored fingernails in their events. Green Tregaro posted a picture on her Instagram account captioned: "Nails painted in rainbow sign#pride#moscow2013."

That prompted Isinbayeva to hit back.

She complained about the Swedes being "unrespectful to our country" and "unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians.

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"We have our home and everyone has to respect (it). When we arrive to different countries, we try to follow their rules."

Symmonds said he was trying to be respectful but felt he had to speak up.

"I'm a guest in this nation," he told CNN. "And if I really wanted to press this issue I could go a lot further and be assembling in the streets but I want to be respectful. Respect the fact that there are a lot of competitors around here that still have to compete and I'm trying to not create a huge distraction for them.

"But at the same time, you watch that video and if that just doesn't show how antiquated some people's thoughts are on this issue, then I don't know what does.

"Running around in circles is great. Winning medals is awesome. If you can maybe change the mind of people for the better and encourage love and equality, then that's what this is really all about."

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