Ireen Wust, one of seven openly gay athletes competing in at the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, won a speed-skating gold medal Sunday — a victory at an event that has thrown Russia’s anti-gay laws under a harsh international spotlight.
“Seventeen million Dutch wanted me to win,” Wust said. “Now the extreme pressure is off, and I can win more.”
She turned in a time of 4 minutes, 0.34 seconds in the 3,000 meters, defeating the defending Olympic champion, Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic. Wust’s participation at Sochi marks her third straight Winter Olympics.
Her triumph comes as Russia faces strong international criticism over its treatment of lesbians and gays. Adding fuel to the fire, Russian police arrested at least 14 gay-rights activists protesting in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the opening day of the Winter Games.
Western powers have been urging Russia to ease its anti-gay laws.
One law, banning gay “propaganda” from reaching minors, has drawn international criticism for months, with some calling for a boycott of the Sochi Games.
Russian law also bans any unsanctioned protests, and violators may face fines or prison sentences.
Some world leaders — including President Barack Obama — chose to stay away from the event completely, partly because of the anti-gay laws.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used a speech before the opening ceremony in Russia on Friday to push for gay rights in sports.
“Many professional athletes — gay and straight — are speaking out against prejudice. We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people,” he said. “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”
When Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday with Dutch leaders who challenged his stance on LGBT rights, he replied that the games should be about sports and not about discussing politics.
Al Jazeera and wire services