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Russian sports minister seeks to reassure gay athletes ahead of Sochi Games

Russia’s sports minister has sought to allay the concerns of gay athletes planning to compete at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. Some are wondering whether they could be arrested for being openly gay.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told a press conference in Moscow on Thursday that concerns about whether openly gay athletes could be arrested while in Russia for the Sochi Games had been blown out of proportion.

"I want to ask you to calm down as in addition to this law we have a constitution that guarantees all citizens a private life," sports minister Vitali Mutko said, referring to the legislation, which was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in June.

The law bans the spread of propaganda promoting "non-traditional sexual orientation," and gives the authorities the power to arrest and impose fines on those convicted of violating it. If the offenders happen to be foreigners, they can be deported.

Mutko also denied that the legislation targeted openly gay people.

"It is not intended to deprive people of any religion, race or sexual orientation but to ban the promotion of non-traditional relations among the young generation," the sports minister said.

"I was in Sochi yesterday and all the athletes and organizations should be relaxed, their rights will be protected...but of course you have to respect the laws of the country you are in," he added.

The president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, told the same press conference that he saw no problem with the law.

"There is a law that exists. The law has to be respected. Some things have to be respected. We are here for the world championships," Diack said, referring to the World Athletics Championships, which begin in Moscow on Saturday.

The law has sparked outrage among gay activists, with some going as far as to call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, which are to run for a fortnight starting on February 7.

The International Olympic Committee has also attempted to reassure athletes. In a statement released last week it said it had received "assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games."

pfd/dr (Reuters, AP, dpa)