IOC President Thomas Bach accused world leaders Tuesday of using the Sochi Olympics as a political platform “on the backs of the athletes,” and of snubbing the games without even being invited.
Three days before the opening of Russia’s first Winter Games, Bach used a hard-hitting speech to call out politicians for using the Olympics to make an “ostentatious gesture” serving their own agendas.
Without naming any individuals, Bach’s comments appeared directed at President Barack Obama and European politicians who have taken stands against Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
The Olympics, Bach said, should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes,” he said at a ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.
“In the extreme, we had to see a few politicians whose contributions to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received.”
The buildup to the Olympics has been overshadowed by Western criticism of the anti-gay law and Russia’s record on human rights and other issues, making Sochi among the most politically charged games in years.
Obama and key European leaders are shunning the Olympics. Obama, in a clear message against the anti-gay laws, has sent a delegation to Sochi made up of three openly gay athletes – tennis great Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano.
For the first time since 2000, the U.S. delegation to an Olympics will not include a president, vice president or first lady. Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano leads the delegation.
German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande are also not coming to Sochi. Neither is British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Bach reiterated again that Putin had given the IOC assurances that the Olympic Charter would be upheld during the games and that homosexuals would not be discriminated against.
Bach said Olympic values stand against any form of discrimination, including on grounds of sexual orientation.
But he stressed the IOC must be “politically neutral without being apolitical” and that athletes must not use the Olympic Village and venues for “political demonstrations.”
The IOC has come under criticism for not doing more to fight the anti-gay law, but Bach said the committee was a sports organization with limited responsibilities.
“We are not a supra-national government,” he said. “We are not a superior world-parliament. We do not have a mandate to impose measures on sovereign states.”
Bach’s speech was delivered at a ceremony marking the opening of the IOC’s three-day session, or general assembly, ahead of the games. The German’s sharp comments marked a strong contrast with the relatively anodyne, diplomatic speeches of his predecessor, Jacques Rogge.
Bach, winner of a fencing gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, was elected in September to succeed Rogge, who served for 12 years.
Bach acknowledged there had been “a lot of skepticism in and outside the IOC” when Sochi was awarded the Olympics in 2007.
“Now, seven years later, we can see that Sochi, that Russia has delivered,” he said.
Putin lauded the IOC’s decision to bring the games to the Black Sea resort.
“We realize what a difficult decision this was to hold the games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 percent of the necessary infrastructure,” he said. “You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties.”
“In the space of five years,” Putin added, “we built world-class sports venues and city infrastructure that normally takes decades to build.”