By Mike Lillis - 02/08/14 10:09 AM EST
The head of the Sochi organizing committee disregarded controversy Saturday over a former figure skater who was selected to light the Olympic torch, despite tweeting a racially-charged photo of President Obama.
Dmitriy Chernyshenko argued that his panel's choice of former Olympian Irina Rodnina – who tweeted a doctored photo last year of Obama and the First Lady staring at a banana – was based solely on Rodnina's place as a sports hero.
Rodnina is a member of the Russian parliament and her tweet last September ignited a firestorm of controversy amid already strained relations between Russia and the United States. Although Rodnina quickly deleted the photo, she has refused to apologize, citing her freedom of speech.
"If you have issues, it's your problem," she tweeted about the ensuing uproar, according to one translation.
The response from U.S. officials was swift and straightforward. Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, condemned Rodnina's "outrageous behavior," saying her tweet "only brings shame to her parliament and country."
In an incident in 2011, a spectator at a professional soccer match threw a banana at Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian star playing for a Russian team, prompting him to leave the field in disgust.
Some observers have suggested that Russian Olympic officials were taking a political jab at Obama by choosing Rodnina for such a high-profile Olympic role. Obama sent an envoy of gay athletes to Sochi in lieu of going to the Games himself.