Putin downplays planned no-show of key Western leaders at Sochi Games

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin downplayed on Sunday the planned no-show of key Western leaders at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and stressed that gay people 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," Mr Putin told foreign reporters in a televised interview, adding that mixing sport and politics was "absolutely inappropriate".

United States President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande have said they will not attend the top sports event seen as Mr Putin's pet project.

Mr Putin also reiterated that Russia will welcome all athletes and visitors at the Games that begin at the Black Sea resort on Feb 7, regardless of their sexuality, seeking to deflect 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.

Gay rights activists have repeatedly criticised the Russian strongman for a law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.

Russia has over the past years spent billions of dollars to build modern sports infrastructure in the Soviet-era resort of Sochi to host the world's most prestigious sporting event.

But Mr 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, Mr Putin pardoned the Kremlin's most famous critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky after a decade in prison on humanitarian grounds.

Two jailed members of Pussy Riot punk band were also released two months early under a Kremlin-backed amnesty.

Thirty foreign and Russian Greenpeace activists also won an amnesty following their prosecution after an open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling by Russian natural giant Gazprom.

Mr Putin said on Sunday the amnesty was not related to the sporting event, denying he was seeking to improve his image in the West.

"It was not me but Parliament that made the decision on amnesty," he said.

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