Moscow: President Vladimir Putin pledged Monday that gay and lesbian athletes and visitors at next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will feel at ease despite Russia’s new “homosexual propaganda” ban.
“We will do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation,” Putin told visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in remarks broadcast on Russian television.
Russia’s adoption in June of a disputed law prohibiting the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors has sparked protests from international rights groups and calls for a boycott of the country’s first post-Soviet Games.
The scandal has already cast a pall over an event closely associated with the powerful Russian leader’s image and dubbed by some media as the “Putin Games”.
Sochi was meant to showcase the strides Russia has made since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow were boycotted by a host of Western nations because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Russian businesses and the government have already spent a record $50 billion on preparations aimed at turning Sochi — a leafy summer resort on the Black Sea — into a global magnet for winter activities.
Putin declared on Monday that “the objective associated with building Olympic facilities has been met.”
The IOC has in previous months tried to steer clear of the political controversy by noting that Russia’s new legislation did not contravene the Olympic Charter.
Russian media quoted Bach as complimenting Putin for overseeing preparations for the February 7-23 festivities but did not quote him as saying anything about the gay propaganda ban.
“The IOC is very satisfied with how preparations for the Games are going,” news reports quoted Bach as saying.
“I hope that very soon, I will once again have the chance to meet (Putin) in Sochi and to personally award gold medals to your athletes.”
Russia’s winter Olympians — once a national treasure who made the Soviet Union into a Winter Games superpower — have been under intense scrutiny because of the team’s underwhelming performances in preceding events.
The country placed a dire 11th in the medals table at the 2010 event in Vancouver after wining only three gold medals.
Russia’s various winter sports federations have since used lavish state funding to attract nearly 100 of the best international coaches to inspire the demoralised squad.
A part of Russia’s problem has been the IOC’s adoption of new events such as snowboarding that attract young new audiences but in which the country’s own athletes have no tradition.
Russia has tried to clear that obstacle by awarding citizenships to star athletes from countries like South Korea that dominate events such as short-track speed skating.
Putin piled still more pressure on Russia’s team Monday by noting that the government had spared no expense on its Olympic preparations.
“Obviously, an honourable and successful result by our athletes is no less important that the impeccable staging and preparations for the competition itself,” the Russian leader said.
Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told Putin that Russia still lagged behind other nations in some of the newer skiing events.
But he also promised that the squad “will give fans a reason to be proud.”