Russian President Vladimir Putin has played down the planned no-show of key Western leaders at the Sochi Winter Olympics and stressed gays were welcome as he prepares to host one of the most controversial Games in modern history.
"The Olympics is not a competition of politicians. It is a competition of athletes," Putin told foreign reporters in a televised interview yesterday, adding that mixing sport and politics was "absolutely inappropriate".
US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have said they will not attend the top sports event, seen as Putin's pet project.
Putin also reiterated that Russia will welcome all athletes and visitors at the Games that begin at the Black Sea resort on February 7, regardless of their sexuality, seeking to deflect 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.
Gay rights activists have repeatedly criticised the Russian strongman for a law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.
Putin has come under huge criticism abroad for Russia's dismal rights record and many activists have called on world leaders to boycott the games.
In an apparent bid to touch up his record, Putin pardoned the Kremlin's most famous critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, after a decade in prison on humanitarian grounds. Two jailed members of the Pussy Riot punk rock band were also released two month early under a Kremlin-backed amnesty.
Putin said the amnesty was not related to the sporting event.