The president of the International Olympic Committee has accused world leaders of using the Sochi Games as a political platform “on the backs of the athletes”, and of snubbing the Winter Olympics without even being invited.
Ahead of tomorrow’s opening of Russia’s first Winter Games, Thomas Bach said politicians were making an “ostentatious gesture” serving their own agendas. Without naming any individuals, Bach’s comments appeared directed at US President Barack Obama and European politicians who have taken a stand against Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda”.
The Olympics, Bach said, should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests”.
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes,” he said on Tuesday at a ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.
“In the extreme, we had to see a few politicians whose contributions to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received.”
The build-up to the Olympics has been overshadowed by Western criticism of the anti-gay law and Russia’s record on human rights and other issues, making Sochi among the most politically charged Games in years.
Obama had planned to send a delegation to Sochi made up of three openly gay athletes – tennis great Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medallist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano. Yesterday, King said she would not attend the opening ceremony because her mother was ill.
For the first time since 2000, the US delegation to an Olympics will not include a president, vice-president or first lady. Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano leads the delegation.
German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron are not going to Sochi.
Bach reiterated that Putin had given assurances that the Olympic Charter would be upheld during the Games and that homosexuals would not be discriminated against. But he stressed the IOC must be “politically neutral without being apolitical” and that athletes must not use the Olympic Village and venues for “political demonstrations”.
The IOC has come under criticism for not doing more to fight the anti-gay law, but Bach said the committee was a sports organisation with limited responsibilities.
Bach was speaking at the opening of the IOC’s three-day session, or general assembly.
Putin lauded the IOC’s decision to bring the Games to the Black Sea resort.
“We realise what a difficult decision this was to hold the Games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 per cent of the necessary infrastructure,” he said. “You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties.”