MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed Sunday the planned no-show of key Western leaders at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and stressed that gays were welcome as he prepared to host one of the most controversial Games in modern history.
The Russian leader also criticized attempts to politicize the sports event, adding sporting events should be used to foster international cooperation.
“The Olympics is not a competition of politicians. It is a competition of athletes,” Putin told reporters in a televised interview, adding that mixing sport and politics was “absolutely inappropriate.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande are among the leaders who have said they will not attend the Games, seen as Putin’s pet project.
“Large international competitions, especially the Olympic Games, are designed to depoliticize the most acute international problems and create additional opportunities to build bridges,” Putin said.
“And it would be silly not to use this opportunity. It would be even sillier to burn these bridges.”
He suggested that Russian and U.S. athletes who will compete in Sochi should not pay attention to any political tensions between their countries.
“Politics should not affect sports, but sports can and must affect politics because sports brings people closer and creates conditions to solve even difficult issues,” he said.
Putin also reiterated that Russia would welcome all athletes and visitors to Sochi, regardless of their sexuality, in a bid to deflect repeated criticism that his policies were anti-gay.
“People have different sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all guests of the Olympics,” he said during the interview with BBC, ABC, Russian and Chinese reporters, seeking to show off his friendly side to the West.
Gay rights activists have criticized the Russian strongman for a law banning the dissemination of so-called “gay propaganda” to minors.
But Putin insisted that gays and lesbians were not discriminated against in the country.
By way of example, he praised the openly gay British pop icon Elton John as “an outstanding person [and] outstanding musician.”
“Millions of our people sincerely love him despite his orientation,” Putin said.
Russia has over the past years spent an estimated $50 billion to build modern sports and other infrastructure in the subtropical Soviet-era resort of Sochi to host the world’s most prestigious sporting event, which opens on Feb. 7.
But Putin has faced huge criticism abroad for Russia’s dismal human rights record, and many have called on world leaders to boycott the Games.
In an apparent bid to touch up his record, Putin last month pardoned the Kremlin’s most famous critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on humanitarian grounds after he spent a decade in prison.
And two jailed members of protest punk band Pussy Riot were released two months early in December under a Kremlin-backed amnesty.
Thirty foreign and Russian Greenpeace activists also won an amnesty after being detained over an open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling.
Putin said Sunday the high-profile releases were not related to the sporting event, denying he was seeking to improve his image in the West.
While the freed Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, have called on world leaders to ignore the Games, Khodorkovsky has spoken out against a boycott, saying a “festival of sport should not be spoilt.”
But he warned it should not be a “festival of Vladimir Putin.”
Putin personally championed the country’s 2007 bid to host the Games, which he apparently sees as one of the crowning achievements of his decade in power.
He dismissed reports that billions of dollars had been stolen during construction for the Olympics in the city as unsubstantiated.
“There are always some forces who are always fighting against everything, including against the Olympic project,” he said, though he acknowledged some irregularities.
“Without any exaggeration it is the largest construction site in the world,” he added.
Putin said Russia spent 214 billion rubles ($6.4 billion) to prepare for the Olympics, but experts estimate the entire cost of hosting the Games at more than $50 billion.