SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The Sochi Winter Olympics are a purely sporting event which should not be used by uninvited guests to score political points, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said on Tuesday.
In a clear reference to world leaders who publicly refused to attend the first Winter Games in Russia, Bach said in an address in the host Russian city that some of them had not even been invited.
“In the extreme we had to see a few politicians whose contribution to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received,” Bach told an audience which included Russian President Vladimir Putin.
French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German President Joachim Gauck, among others, announced they would not attend the February 7-23 Games without providing a reason.
The United States, which is sending lower-ranking officials that in recent Olympics, has in its delegation to Sochi three openly gay members including former tennis champion Billie Jean King.
Russia has faced criticism over its human rights record and a recent anti-gay propaganda law which opponents say curtails the rights of homosexuals in the country.
U.S. President Barack Obama will not attend the Sochi Games.
President George W. Bush visited Beijing during the 2008 Olympics, first lady Michelle Obama headed the U.S. delegation to the 2012 London Games, while Vice President Joe Biden performed that role at the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics.
“We are very grateful to the many political leaders around the world who have understood and respect this power of sport...who know what positive effect sport has on education, health and for the cohesion of societies,” Bach, elected to the top post in September, said.
“We are grateful to those who respect the fact that sport can only contribute to development and peace if it is not used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”
His comments mark a sharp shift from predecessor Jacques Rogge, who avoided direct political references in issues relating to the Games.
“To other political leaders we say: please understand what our responsibilities are and what your responsibilities are,” said Bach, a lawyer by profession.
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes. It is my deepest conviction that this would also be in your well-understood long-term political interest.”
Bach has repeatedly said the IOC was not a “supra-national” organization that could solve conflicts on its own.
He added: “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.”
The Communist Soviet Union also hosted an Olympics, the 1980 Moscow summer Games, which were boycotted by a number of Western nations at the height of the Cold War.
The expected $51-billion price tag makes the Sochi Games the most expensive Olympics but Putin told IOC members that other countries could in future draw on Russia’s experiences when preparing for other major sports events.
Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Editing by Timothy Heritage