February 4 - International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has criticised world leaders who have chosen to stay away from the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games in a hard-hitting speech here tonight.
Bach, addressing IOC members along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticised those who have used the Olympics in Sochi "as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests".
This comes after numerous Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, French counterpart Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron, announced they will not attend in what has been interpreted as a snub at supposedly anti-gay rights laws introduced into the Duma - the Lower House of the Russian Parliament - last year.
"Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes," advised Bach at the Opening Ceremony of the IOC Session.
"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."
Bach also highlighted how the IOC must be "politically neutral but not apolitical" before insisting that "we do not have a mandate to impose measures on sovereign states".
He then quoted Nelson Mandela's view that "sport can change the world" and argued that this was because it contributes to peace and a better society and builds bridges to bring people together rather than move them apart.
Bach also praised the IOC's relationship with the United Nations (UN) and looked forward with "honour and pleasure" to the address by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon during the IOC Session later in the week.
In a long and wide-ranging 30 minute speech, Bach also reiterated what he sees as the three most important areas to focus on at of tomorrow's Session - namely sustainability, credibility, youth - while he also praised the Olympics as an event that will "leave a great legacy for Russia".
Bach's speech was followed by one by Putin who, after arriving in Sochi ahead of the Ceremony this evening, spoke in Russian and delivered a passionate defence of the Sochi 2014 project.
He focused most of all on what the Games has meant for the Russian people.
"Winning in 2007 gave hope to millions of Russians and it all of us a sense of honour to deliver," he said.
"We are grateful to the IOC for giving us the opportunity to host a Games - we understand it was not an easy decision to give it to a city with 10-15 per cent of infrastructure in place but you placed your faith in the Russian people.
"Russia has great devotion for sport and has been waiting with great expectations.
"We experienced [a] great surge of emotion at Moscow 1980 and that inspiring Olympic spirit is returning.
"Thanks to the immense, colossal constructive work where everyone invested part of themselves, staging the Olympic and Paralympic Games has provided an opportunity for the world to get a better feel of today's Russia".
He did, however, steer clear of many of the issues that have clouded the build-up to the Games - with no mention of security concerns and only an indirect reference to criticism over supposed anti-gay rights legislation when he expressed his dedication to "Russian traditions, the Olympic Charter and the world".
The driving thrust of Putin's speech was on the sporting legacy for Russia - in terms of the profile of the Sochi region but particularly in terms of encouraging more people to get into sport.
This involves a legacy not just in reinforcing "healthy lifestyles, respect, fairness and equality", but also in terms of "more tangible things" such as training facilities and the Russian International Olympic University (RIOU) in Sochi.
Returning more directly to Sochi 2014, Putin described how new Olympic events in freestyle skiing and snowboarding would specifically attract young people, while he also expressed his hope that the Paralympic Games would prove just as popular as the Olympic version.
Putin concluded by declaring the 126th IOC Session open before the attendance of IOC members and other major figures form the sporting world were treated to a series of balletic performances
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