Russia chose a lawmaker and former figure skater who tweeted a racially charged photo of President Obama to light the Olympic cauldron on Friday. Irina Rodnina made international headlines last September when she sent out a doctored photo of Obama and first lady Michelle Obama appearing to stare at a banana.
The Hill The photo outraged the Obama administration and prompted U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul to denounce Rodnina’s “outrageous behavior, which only brings shame to her parliament and country.” Opposition leader Alexei Navalny retweeted the photo, with the caption: “Look at the jokes Russian MPs make.”
Rodnina erased the tweet soon after but defiantly refused to apologize. “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups,” she wrote at the time.
Rodnina is a member of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and one figure-skating’s most decorated athletes, having won three Olympic gold medals in consecutve games from 1972 to 1980. She lit the torch with Vladislav Tretiak, a former goal-keeper for Russia’s national ice hockey team and also a three-time gold medalist.
A string of famous athletes carried the torch through the Olympic stadium at Sochi before handing it off to Rodnina and Tretiak for the symbolic finale. Tennis star Maria Sharapova carried the torch into the arena, which was handed it off in turn to pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, wrestler Aleksandr Karelin and gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who is widely rumored to be Putin’s girlfriend.