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Russia, Putin can’t kiss off human rights

Four Russian women ended a long-running tradition in 3 minutes, 20.19 seconds on Saturday. Then they helped chip away at an even longer-running one in two seconds flat.

The team of Russian sprinters won the gold medal in the 4 x 400-meter relay at the world championships in Moscow, defeating the United States by 22/100 of a second. It was a surprise, because the U.S. had long dominated the event, winning the last three world titles.

Then the real shock: Sprinters Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kissed on the lips, first on the track and again on the podium as they were awarded their gold medals.

All this about four miles from the Kremlin, where President Vladimir Putin’s government is intensifying its anti-gay stance and provoking talk of an international boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia, in February.

After much speculation, Ryzhova said Monday the kisses were just celebratory and not a political statement. Whether that’s true or just self-protection, the kisses were taken by many as a message given the international concern about the safety and human rights of gay athletes and spectators at the Olympics.

Russia’s Duma passed a law in June that makes it illegal to spread “propaganda” about homosexuality to minors. The law is incredibly vague about what that includes. Two women kissing on a medal stand could certainly qualify.

It appears that Putin and his government have forgotten the single biggest truth that emerged from the tearing down of the Iron Curtain in 1989. And that is: Not laws, nor police states nor prejudice can, in the end, stop the irrepressible force of freedom. Once the people of Poland, Hungary, East Germany and elsewhere tasted liberty, it was a matter of time before the walls crumbled.

So it is with human rights. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Putin signing this anti-gay law is like Wile E. Coyote using a frail umbrella to protect against a falling boulder.

Even with all Putin’s power and intimidation, there were Ryzhova and Firova kissing on the winners’ platform. There was Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro with her fingernails painted in the colors of the rainbow to protest the law. There was U.S. runner Nick Symmonds dedicating his silver medal in the 800 meters to “my gay and lesbian friends back home.”

Human rights are like manifest destiny. It has taken hundreds of years, but the United States has inched steadily toward greater inclusion, be it for women or racial minorities or gays. A similar walk has taken place across much of the globe. Vladimir Putin will not end it.

The United States should not boycott the Sochi games. It and all other nations should attend and be heard: The march of progress can be slowed, but it cannot be stopped.

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