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German president will not attend Olympics in Russia

By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Josh Levs, CNN
December 10, 2013 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
German President Joachim Gauck does not plan to attend the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his office says.
German President Joachim Gauck does not plan to attend the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his office says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Spokesman for German president won't discuss his reasons for skipping the games
  • President Joachim Gauck will not attend Olympics in Sochi
  • It's a protest over human rights and harassment of the opposition, Der Spiegel reports
  • It would make him the first major political figure to boycott the games

(CNN) -- German President Joachim Gauck will not represent his country at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his office says.

The announcement makes Gauck, a former pastor, the first major political figure to boycott the games, which will be held at the Black Sea resort in February.

According to a report in the German publication Der Spiegel, Gauck made the decision in protest against human rights violations and the harassment of Russian opposition political figures. The magazine said the Russian government was informed of his decision last week.

But Gauck's office is downplaying the report . "He simply decided not to go," his spokesman Tobias Scheufele told CNN. "We're not saying anything about his motivations."

Scheufele said Germany hasn't heard anything from Russia about Gauck's decision. Russia's Presidential Press Service said there was no immediate official reaction to the report.

Is Sochi ready?
Sochi 2014: The torch begins its journey

Germany's presidency is largely ceremonial; Chancellor Angela Merkel oversees the government.

Some athletes have spoken out against Russia's new "propaganda" law that bans even discussion of homosexuality anywhere that children might hear it.

The legislation, which President Vladimir Putin signed in June, gives authorities the power to impose fines as well as detain and deport foreigners who are deemed to have breached the law.

Sochi 2014: Gay athlete promises openly defiant stance at Games

Some artists and activists have called for a boycott of the Sochi games, which run from February 7 to 23.

"I don't think that we should be going to the Olympics at all," Lady Gaga said last week during an interview on the British television show "Alan Carr: Chatty Man." "I just think it is absolutely wrong for so many countries to send money and economy in the way of a country that doesn't support gays."

In August, British actor and writer Stephen Fry wrote an open letter to the International Olympic Committee and British Prime Minister David Cameron saying: "An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential.

"Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world," he wrote in the letter posted on his website.

Putin said in an interview on state television in September that gay people would not be discriminated against at the Sochi games. But that appeared at odds with statements made by government officials that the anti-gay propaganda law would be enforced.

Putin also later said everyone would be welcomed to the Winter Olympics in Russia, regardless of sexual orientation, state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

The IOC in August said it received assurances "from the highest level of government in Russia" that the law would not affect people attending or taking part in the Games. The next month, the IOC said the law did not violate the Olympic Charter.

U.S. President Barack Obama rejected calls for the United States to boycott the Games, saying such a move would hurt American athletes who trained and sacrificed to qualify.

Earlier this year, Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested a possible boycott of the Olympics if Putin allowed NSA leaker Edward Snowden to remain in his country and if Putin continued supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A brief history of the Winter Olympics

CNN''s Zarifmo Aslamshoyeva, Arkady Irshenko, Baharati Naik, Sara Mazloumsaki, and Bryony Jones contributed to this report.

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