Russia on Tuesday dismissed the impact of a decision by US and some European leaders to skip the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi over Moscow’s record on human rights.
US President Barack Obama last week named two openly gay sports stars but no acting official to his Games delegation, in a message of opposition to a ban on “homosexual propaganda” that Russia imposed this year.
French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron are among a clutch of EU leaders who have also decided to skip the Games’ opening ceremony on February 7.
Russian Olympic Committee chief Alexander Zhukov said the high-profile absences would have no impact on the Games.
“This will in no way affect the Olympic Games or alter their significance,” Russian news agencies quoted Zhukov as saying in Moscow’s first reported response to Obama’s decision.
“The Olympic Games are a competition for athletes and everything else is optional. The point is the competition itself and not whether 20 or 30 leaders attend.”
A Sochi boycott has been supported by Western celebrities and rights groups concerned that the anti-gay propaganda legislation will permit Russian authorities to launch a wider crackdown against homosexual rights.
Their calls were supported on Monday by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the anti-Kremlin punk group Pussy Riot upon her release for prison under a general amnesty in the run-up to the Sochi event.
“I appeal for a boycott, I appeal for honesty,” Tolokonnikova said.
Tolokonnikova and her band mate Maria Alyokhina were sentenced to two-year terms in penal colonies for performing a protest song against President Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral.
Tolokonnikova said on Monday that a Sochi Games boycott would underscore nations’ concern about a general deterioration of political freedoms in Russia under Putin’s 13-year reign.
But Zhukov said no country was seriously thinking of skipping the competition in a repeat of the boycott the West imposed on the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“Nobody is talking about a boycott,” the Russian Olympic Committee head said.
“No one is seriously discussing it — neither the International Olympic Committee nor any serious politicians,” he said.
Zhukov added that Obama himself “had never attend a single Games’ opening” since he became president in 2009.