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Putin aims to 'depoliticize' Sochi games

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 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 top sports event, seen as Putin's pet project.

The Russian strongman criticized attempts to politicize the Olympics, saying sporting events should be used to foster international cooperation.

“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 recommended Russian and U.S. athletes who will compete in Sochi 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 will welcome all athletes and visitors at the Games, regardless of their sexuality, seeking 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 foreign 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.

'Millions of our people love Elton John'

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 more than US$50 billion to build modern sports infrastructure in the Soviet-era resort of Sochi to host the world's most prestigious sporting event, which opens on Feb. 7.

Putin has come under huge criticism abroad for Russia's dismal rights record and many 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, on humanitarian grounds after 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.

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