ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Two of the biggest U.S. stars in Russia for the Winter Olympics sidestepped questions about the troubled political backdrop to the Games and said on Thursday the sport should come first.
Human rights concerns, especially over a Russian law passed last year that bans the promotion of homosexuality to young people, have dogged the run-up to the Games that open in Sochi on Friday.
Asked about the gay rights issue, U.S. alpine skier and 2006 giant slalom Olympic champion Julia Mancuso told a news conference: “For me it’s kind of political, that kind of stuff. We’re here to compete and we’re here to do our job, which is to go fast.”
Bode Miller, winner of the men’s Super Combined gold medal in Vancouver four years ago, said the issues surrounding Sochi were “were no more political than the ones in China (in 2008) or Olympics as far back as you can remember.”
While several athletes have said they plan to speak out on behalf of gay rights at Sochi, the comments by two of the best-known U.S. winter Olympians may partly reassure Russian officials who are anxious not to see the mood spoiled.
Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko has tried to nip any such criticism in the bud, saying protests at news conferences would be unacceptable and go against the Olympic charter.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned sexual discrimination and attacks on homosexuals in a speech to Olympic officials in Sochi on Thursday, although he did not refer directly to gay rights in Russia.
Miller said he expected the politics to fade more into the background after Friday’s opening ceremony.
“I don’t really feel like the Olympics is a place for that kind of politics... I think it’s a place for sports and a place for cultures to put aside their differences and compete,” said the 36-year-old, who also has three Olympic silver medals and a bronze.
Aside from the politics, security fears have also loomed over the Olympics, the first Russia has hosted since 1980. Islamist militants killed 34 people in two suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd at the end of last year.
“We’ve had a lot of headlines and people calling me, like, ‘just be safe in Russia,” said Mancuso, 29, who won two silvers in Vancouver in 2010 to add to her gold from Turin.
“I just really trust in everyone keeping us safe. I‘m just here to really take it all in and enjoy the experience, and try not to worry about anything else.”
Editing by Ed Osmond