SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Ukraine's victory in the women's biathlon relay was the standout moment of the Sochi Olympics, a powerful symbol of unity during the country's bloody political crisis, IOC President Thomas Bach said Saturday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Bach praised Ukraine's athletes for staying in Sochi to compete for their country despite the violence and turmoil that has left scores dead back home.
"In this moment, mourning on the one hand, but knowing what really is going on in your country, seeing your capital burning, and feeling this responsibility, and then winning the gold medal, this really stands out for me," Bach said. "It was really an emotional moment."
The IOC leader also commended Sochi organizers for staging games in which "not a single athlete had a single complaint." He said the Olympic Charter's rule on non-discrimination was "fully respected" by the Russians and suggested the Pussy Riot punk rock group had used the games as a publicity platform.
The victory by the Ukrainian team in Friday night's 4x6-kilometer biathlon relay came with the country — torn between Russia and the West — embroiled in the worst unrest in its post-Soviet history. Twins Vita and Valj Semerenko combined with Juliya Dzhyma and Olena Pidhrushna to win the gold.
Bach said he had been in contact with Ukrainian team officials amid speculation that athletes might leave. Only one Ukrainian athlete withdrew from the Olympics because of the crisis.
"Imagine what (the) signal would have been to the world community and to the Ukrainian people if the Ukrainian team would have broken up," he said. "That would have created the image of two Ukraines and would have made a political solution even more difficult if not impossible."
Bogdana Matsotska, a 24-year-old Alpine skier, and her father, a coach, pulled out of the competition following the deaths of anti-government protesters. But they remained in Sochi, a decision that Bach saluted.
"This is also a great gesture ... to declare I am part of this opposition, but there is something more than just the political disagreement, this is the unity of the Olympic team," Bach said.
Asked about the overall success of the Sochi Games, Bach pointed to the perception of the athletes. Bach, who was elected IOC president in September, is a former Olympic fencer who won a gold medal in 1976.
"It was great games for the athletes," he said. "I've never experienced a situation like this where not a single athlete had a single complaint. It was really amazing."
Bach said normally there are some complaints about logistical issues, transportation or security.
"Not here," he said. "The athletes were very happy with the facilities. They were happy with the living conditions in the Olympic villages, and they were extremely happy with the vicinity to the competition or training venues."
Bach said security worries, including threats of terror attacks by Islamic extremists from the nearby north Caucasus, had been allayed by an effective security apparatus that included a wide perimeter around the Olympic Park.
In the interview, Bach said Pussy Riot, which spent five days in Sochi filming footage for a video criticizing Putin and the Olympics, had used the games for their own ends.
"They are trying for obvious reasons to make a statement in Sochi," Bach said. "(These) people have a very good feeling that the games are just used, if not to say misused."
On Wednesday, a group of Cossacks attacked members of Pussy Riot in central Sochi. One Cossack militia member lashed at the women with a horse whip.
"This I would like to see differently, that goes without saying," Bach said. "But we are not a supra-government of Russia. From our point of view, this is something that is not related to the games at all."
Bach said he was not surprised there have been no protests or outspoken statements by athletes over Russia's controversial law barring gay "propaganda" among minors.
"I think I know the athletes a little bit from my own experience," he said. "The athletes, they came here for sport and they want to compete fair. For them, it's their nature and it's the nature of sport, there is no discrimination."
Bach said Russia had lived up to the assurances given by President Vladimir Putin that there would be no discrimination of any kind against athletes or spectators.
"We have seen the Olympic Charter has been fully respected," he said.
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