The International Olympic Committee doesn't have the authority to intervene in Russia's law banning gay propaganda and is convinced there will be no discrimination against athletes or spectators at the Winter Games in Sochi, a top Olympic official said Thursday.
Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission, gave his stamp of approval of Russian preparations for the games during a news conference at the conclusion of the commission's 10th and final visit to Sochi before the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7.
Russia has come under scrutiny as the next host of the Olympics because of the law passed this summer outlawing "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors," which many worry may apply to gay athletes and visitors to the games.
Killy said the commission considered the issue carefully and in the end was fully convinced that Russia will respect the Olympic charter, which prohibits discrimination of any kind. He said the IOC had received written assurances from Russian officials there would be no discrimination.
"The Olympic Charter states that all segregation is completely prohibited, whether it be on the grounds of race, religion, color or other, on the Olympic territory," he said in French.
"That will be the case, we are convinced. Another thing I must add: the IOC doesn't really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organized. As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied, and that is the case."
Russian officials insist the law is designed to protect children and doesn't infringe on the rights of gays.
"Regarding this law, if people of traditional sexual orientation spread propaganda of non-traditional sex to children, then they will also be held accountable," said Dmitry Kozak, a deputy prime minister in charge of overseeing preparations for the Sochi Olympics. "So there is simply no need to talk about discrimination."
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization in the U.S., condemned the IOC's assessment of the Russian law.
"If this law doesn't violate the IOC's charter, then the charter is completely meaningless," HRC president Chad Griffin said in a statement. "The safety of millions of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Russians and international travelers is at risk, and by all accounts the IOC has completed neglected its responsibility to Olympic athletes, sponsors and fans from around the world."
He noted that Killy spoke a day after gay rights activists were arrested outside the Moscow headquarters of the Sochi Olympics organizing committee for protesting the law.
In Strasbourg, France, a leading European human rights watchdog that counts Russia among its 47 member states said the law "raises serious issues" under its 60-year-old human rights convention.
The Council of Europe's committee of ministers released a statement Thursday that "invited" Russian authorities to take measures to raise awareness about the fundamental rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Russia was urged to submit a plan toward that end as soon as possible.
President Vladimir Putin signed the ban on propaganda into law in late June. In August, he signed an additional decree banning all demonstrations and rallies in Sochi for two and a half months around the time of the games, a measure seen as intended to thwart protests by gay rights activists.
Killy said the IOC commission was pleased with the ongoing construction ahead of the games, which with a total cost of $51 billion will be the most expensive Olympics in history.
Much of the city still looks like an enormous building site, with unfinished hotels and debris from construction scattered across the Black Sea coast, but the Olympic venues are impressive.
The coastal venues, where the skating events will take place, are sprawled like beached metallic whales across what used to be a residential coastline. The structures themselves are both sleekly elegant and intimate, providing for a close proximity between athletes and spectators.
The mountain venues, about an hour by car or train from the coast, are similarly spectacular. A network of gondolas, like pulsing veins up the mountainside, whisk visitors up to 2,320 meters (7,650 feet), while the smooth wood of the bobsleigh track zigzags across the lush forest. A blizzard on Wednesday coated the mountain peaks in snow, helping to ease worries of a repeat of last year's warm winter.
The IOC visit coincided with major storms, unusual for Sochi in September. Down the mountain, heavy rain caused flooding and mudslides, leading authorities to introduce a state of emergency.
Killy said that despite the rainfall there had been "no damage anywhere whatsoever" and he was confident that any weather problems "would not stop the games."
He recalled the IOC commission's first visit in September 2011 and the "unprecedented challenge" Russia faced to put in the necessary infrastructure and build most of the venues from scratch.
"In Europe you would probably spend 15 years on that, and here they did it in seven," Killy said. Russia was awarded the 2014 Olympics in 2007.
Kozak asserted that only $7 billion had been spent on the venues themselves, whereas the remaining sum went toward "developing the city and the region" along the Black Sea.