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UN chief decries anti-gay discrimination on eve of Sochi Games

IOC President Thomas Bach, right, hands over the Olympic torch to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the torch relay arrives in Sochi, ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Russia.

Shamil Zhumatov/AP

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used a speech here on the eve of the opening of the Sochi Olympics here to turn the spotlight on a Russian law targeting gay "propaganda," calling for an end to all forms of discrimination.

"We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrest, imprisonment and discriminatory restrictions they face," Mr. Ban said in an address to the International Olympic Committee.

Mr. Ban didn't specifically mention the law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last June that criminalized "propaganda promoting non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Violations are punishable with fines, the closure of businesses and – if the perpetrator is a foreigner – expulsion from Russia.

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But speaking the day before the opening ceremonies of the Games, Mr. Ban's remarks fuelled the growing controversy over Russia's treatment of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities.

"Principle six of the Olympic Charter enshrines the IOC's opposition to any form of discrimination. Hatred of any kind must have no place in the 21st century," Mr. Ban said. He referred to a recent letter from 50 current and former Olympians who called on the IOC to uphold principle six, which decrees that "any form of discrimination … is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

"Many professional athletes, gay and straight, are speaking out against prejudice," he added. "We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people. We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face."

Speaking to reporters after his address, Mr. Ban, who was expected meet Mr. Putin in Sochi on Thursday, also said that he appreciated "the assurances of President Putin that there will be no discrimination and that people with different sexual orientation are welcome to compete and enjoy this Olympic Games."

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak used a news conference later in the day to deny that gay people are persecuted in Russia. He said there should be no gay rights protests during the Games.

"Political propaganda during sporting events is forbidden by the Olympic charter and Russian law," he said. Several gay Russians interviewed by The Globe and Mail said they would welcome any gestures of support from foreign visitors to the Games, such as public same-sex hand-holding.

The gay rights issue is just one of a field of disagreement that has soured relations between Mr. Putin's Kremlin and Western governments.

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Among Russia's fellow G8 members, only Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta are expected to attend Friday's opening ceremony.

In what was portrayed as a rebuke of Mr. Putin's rollback of gay rights, U.S. President Barack Obama sent only a low-level delegation to Sochi, headed by Janet Napolitano, a former Secretary of Homeland Security. She will be joined by several openly gay athletes.

Canada's delegation in Sochi is headed by former skiing star Steve Podborski and John Kur, Canada's new ambassador to Moscow. Foreign Minister John Baird has criticized the anti-gay law as "incitement to intolerance."

Canada, the U.S. and the European Union have also criticized the Kremlin for its involvement in Syria, where Moscow has strongly backed Bashar al-Assad in the civil war there, and Ukraine, where Mr. Putin has threatened massive economic retaliation if Kiev signs a trade deal with the EU.

But Mr. Putin's favour is still courted by his Asian neighbours, as well as the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the 2014 Sochi Organizing Committee, said Thursday that 65 heads of state and government and international organizations are expected to attend Russia's first Winter Olympics. He said the total was a record, and three times the number of leaders who attended the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

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Topping the list of expected guests are Mr. Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Asian rivals that have been butting heads since the two men came to office. Both leaders seek a steady supply of Russian oil and gas to feed their economies, as well as the Kremlin's backing in a charged territorial row over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

North Korea's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, will also be in attendance, even though no North Korean athletes qualified for the Games.

The presidents of former Soviet republics Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Latvia will all be in Sochi, although Georgia – which went to war with Russia on the first day of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – is sending only its athletes. Deepening the quarrel, the leader of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, the Russian-backed separatist enclave Georgia was fighting to regain, received a personal invitation to Sochi from Mr. Putin.

The most important meeting in Sochi is expected to be the encounter between Mr. Putin and the embattled Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovych, who has come under heavy criticism at home for leaving the country in the midst of political chaos.

Mr. Yanukovych dismissed Prime Minister Mykola Azarov last month in a concession aimed at placating the pro-EU protesters who have occupied central Kiev since November. Mr. Putin has since suggested that Russia could withhold $15-billion in promised aid until it sees the shape and political leaning of the new Ukrainian government. The threat has deepened Ukraine's economic crisis, with the country's currency, the hryvnia, plunging this week to a five-year low against the dollar.

The content of the opening ceremonies, which begin at 8:14 p.m. local time Friday (11:14 ET), had been a closely guarded secret, but details started to leak out late Thursday.

The government-run RIA Novosti news agency said the ceremony would emphasize Russia's rich culture and history, including a recreated Peter the Great and scenes from Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

"It shows all of Russian history, apart from the [Bolshevik] revolution," said a volunteer interviewed by RIA Novosti. "There is no Lenin or Stalin."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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