IOC President Thomas Bach said Russia will set up public protest zones in Sochi during the Winter Olympics, a move unlikely to defuse criticism of the country’s human rights record and a recent law banning gay "propaganda.
With the opening ceremony less than two months away, Bach said Sochi organizers notified him of the decision during their report to the International Olympic Committee executive board on Tuesday.
Bach, chairing his first board meeting since being elected president in September, said the Russians would establish specially designated zones for "people who want to express their opinion or want to demonstrate for or against something."
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Bach said he didn’t have any details on where the protest zones would be located or how they would be managed during the games, which run from Feb. 7-23.
"This is a measure we welcome, so that everybody can express his or her free opinion," he said at a news conference.
The decision to open protest zones comes amid continuing Western condemnation of President Vladimir Putin’s record on human rights and the law banning promotion of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors.
In August, Putin signed a decree banning "gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets" for 2 months in Sochi around the Olympics and Paralympics. The ban is to take effect Jan. 7, a month before the start of the games and runs until March 21.
Putin’s decree appeared aimed at heading off demonstrations against the anti-gay law.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where China came under scrutiny for its human rights record and policy on Tibet, officially sanctioned protest zones were located miles from venues and were unused.
Beijing protesters had to apply for permission to hold demonstrations. Applications had to specify the protest subject and list those demonstrators involved. Chinese officials said almost 200 applications were received but most were withdrawn or rejected.
Protests near Beijing venues were quickly quelled, and activists detained and deported.
On Tuesday, the IOC board also approved a letter that will be sent to athletes reminding them to refrain from any protests or political gestures during the Sochi Games. The Russian law has raised questions about what could happen to athletes who wear pins or badges or carry flags supporting gay rights.
The memo focuses on Rule 50 in the Olympic Charter, which states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
"We are going a step further to explain to the athletes why these rules are established and they are there to protect themselves," Bach said.
On another issue, Bach said the Indian Olympic Association remains suspended for the time being but Indian athletes are free to compete in Sochi as individual competitors under the IOC flag.
The decision came two days after the Indian body amended its constitution to ban corruption-tainted officials from running for election, as demanded by the IOC.
Had India not complied, it faced becoming the first country to be expelled from the Olympics since South Africa was kicked out more than 40 years ago.
The Indian body was suspended last December after electing secretary-general Lalit Bhanot, who spent 10 months in jail on corruption charges related to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
Bach said the IOC would lift the suspension once new elections are held. If the elections — currently scheduled for Feb. 9 — are moved up to take place before Sochi, the IOC could act quickly to allow India’s three qualified athletes to compete under their national flag, he said.
Also Tuesday, Bach said the IOC is assigning one of its top administrators to work directly with Brazilian organizers to get their troubled preparations on track for the 2016 Olympics.
Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director for the Olympic Games, will be deployed to help the Brazilians overcome construction delays that have raised serious concerns in the IOC.
Bach said Felli’s "top priority" after the Sochi Games will be to work with the Rio organizing committee. He will remain in that role after he steps down from the IOC at the end of August.
Bach, meanwhile, said he will travel to Brazil before the Sochi Olympics to meet with President Dilma Rousseff and Rio organizers.
"There is not a single moment to lose," he said. "Every effort has to be made, every single day, to bring the construction of Olympic sites and infrastructure forward."