News conference protests not allowed warns Sochi chief

Wed Jan 29, 2014 9:03am EST

Volunteers stand on a platform displaying the Olympic rings on the Olympic Park as preparations continue for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, January 29, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Volunteers stand on a platform displaying the Olympic rings on the Olympic Park as preparations continue for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, January 29, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

(Reuters) - Protests by athletes over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law during news conferences at the Sochi Winter Olympics are unacceptable as they go against the Olympic Charter, Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said on Wednesday.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach had urged athletes attending the February 7-23 Games in the Black sea resort to refrain from protests on the podium according to an Olympic rule that forbids political statements in Olympic venues.

Bach did, however, indicated that if athletes choose to make their opposition to this law or Russia's human rights record known they could do so at pre- or post-competition news conferences.

"He might have mentioned that there is a rule 50 in the Olympic Charter which limits the expression of any propaganda during the Games," Chernyshenko told a conference call when asked how organizers would deal with possible protests.

"I don't think they (athletes) are allowed by the Charter to express those views that are not related to the sport at the press conference room."

Russia has been under mounting criticism over its controversial anti-gay propaganda law that critics say curtails homosexuals' rights.

Several athletes have said they will vent their opposition during the Games while lesbian and gay rights groups have urged participants to be vocal on site against the law.

"Everyone in attendance is welcome to enjoy themselves, we welcome everybody regardless of race, gender, religious or sexual orientation," said Chernyshenko.

SPEAKERS' CORNER

Chernyshenko, who headed Sochi's successful bid seven years ago, said should athletes want to speak out about issues they could do so in a special location in the city, away from the Olympic venues.

"What I would call the Sochi speakers' corner has been organized in Sochi city so that everybody can express themselves," Chernyshenko said.

Several heads of state, including Germany's President Joachim Gauck and President Francois Hollande of France have refused to attend the Games in what is seen as a snub to Russia.

"Frankly we are talking about world leaders here, some of the busiest people on the planet. I imagine many of them would love to attend. To suggest it is something personal is not accurate and acceptable," Chernyshenko said.

"The number of state leaders... to come is the highest ever in the history of the Olympic Winter Games," he said without giving a figure when asked.

He also brushed aside security concerns, especially following deadly bomb attacks in Volgograd last month as well as threats from Islamist militants to target the Games.

"We are fully ready, in great shape, everything is in place, only thing left is the athletes to come," he said of Russia's first Winter Olympics, that cost a record $50 billion.

"Sochi will be one of the most security friendly Games. All security will be gentle and smooth. Sochi is the secure venue on the planet."

"It is important to understand that the Olympics are a global event and security is a global, multinational operation so the Games are the safest for everyone."

Apart from security, accusations of corruption have also accompanied Sochi throughout its seven-year preparation period.

On Monday, Russian opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin - who has staked his personal and political prestige in the Games - of helping enrich friends by awarding the Olympic contracts at a cost several times more than those of similar facilities elsewhere.

"If you come and look around you will see the most state-of-the-art facilities in the world. That would not have been possible if those allegations of corruption were true," Chernyshenko, a Sochi native, said.

"The stage is perfectly set for the stars to step forward."

(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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