By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin denied that any large-scale corruption surrounded the Sochi Winter Olympics and challenged those with allegations of misconduct to come forward with proof.
Western and Russian opposition critics have made allegations that large amounts of money have been stolen during construction for the 2014 Olympics in the Black Sea city, but have provided little concrete evidence.
Some Olympic subcontractors have said corruption has been endemic during preparations for the games, which start on February7.
"We don't see any large-scale instances of corruption during our preparations ...in Sochi. If anyone has any information about corruption in Sochi, please hand it over, we will be glad and grateful," Putin said in an interview with ABC, BBC and Russian and Chinese journalists broadcast on Sunday.
"A few years ago local bureaucrats tried to buy and sell land intended for Olympic venues. Investigations were carried out, these people were tried by Russian courts and are serving their punishments."
Russia has spent more than $50 billion on preparations for the Winter Games, making them the most expensive in Olympic history. Putin's government hopes to show the world a modern face of Russia, which has faced increased criticism from the West over human rights.
A law passed last year banning the promotion of homosexuality among minors has drawn criticism from the West and human rights activists. Calls for a mass boycott of the games have failed, but the row has clouded the build-up to the event.
Critics say the law is discriminatory and part of a rolling back of human rights and democratic freedoms under Putin, who has taken a more conservative course on social issues since returning to the presidency in mid-2012 [ID:nL5N0KR2SF]
Putin said on Sunday he has gay acquaintances and would be happy to meet members of the U.S. Olympic delegation, which includes openly homosexual athletes.
"I will be glad to see the representatives of any country, including those of the United States, there is no doubt about this. If they have any desire to meet, to talk about anything, for the love of God, I don't see any problem," he said.
In a separate interview with the BBC broadcast in London, Putin said: "If you want my personal attitude I don't care about a person's sexual orientation. I myself know some people who are gay. We are on friendly terms. I am not prejudiced in any way."
Asked whether he would meet gay British celebrities like singer Elton John and actor Ian McKellen if they travelled to Russia to discuss his policies towards homosexuals, he said he would "definitely" talk to them.
"I've honored several members of the gay community in this country but for their personal achievements regardless of their sexual orientation," said Putin.
With less than three weeks to go before the start of the games, Putin said while all of Sochi's venues had been completed, the host city still needed some cleaning.
"Everything has been done, now we have to get things in order: organize the work of hotels, remove construction equipment, construction waste, that is prepare like any host or hostess does before having guests."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in London, Editing by Rosalind Russell)