The announcement came during a news teleconference held by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach.
“This was under discussion with the IOC for quite some time,” Bach said. “This is a measure we welcome so that everybody can express his or her opinion.”
The Games in Sochi have become particularly controversial because of Russia’s recently enacted anti-gay legislation threatening prosecution of anyone who, in the presence of minors, promotes ‘nontraditional sexual relations.’
Critics worldwide have condemned the law as a violation of the right to free expression, saying the measure effectively bans events such as gay rights parades.
Bach did not offer any details about the size or location of the zones. He said Russian officials have assured him protesters will not face negative consequences.
“I think this is the purpose of these protest zones,” Bach said. “This is what we’ve been discussing with Russian authorities.”
Bach also confirmed that the IOC will send a letter to all the national Olympic committees warning athletes not to protest at venues during the Games.
However, a gay-rights group criticised that stance. “If IOC President Thomas Bach truly cares about principles, he should speak out against the discriminatory Russian laws that clearly violate Principle 6 of the IOC's Charter,” said Andre Banks, executive director of All Out. “These laws not only stigmatise the gay community, they have also ignited a wave of anti-gay violence around the country. It’s time to change the Olympic bidding process to ensure that the honor of hosting the Games only goes to countries that respect basic human rights.”
Navratilova hits out at IOC
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova hit out at the IOC, accusing the Olympic body of 'putting their head in the sand' over gay rights. "I think the IOC needs to stand up better for their athletes, quite frankly. I have never supported boycott (of Sochi) because the athletes would be the only ones that will suffer from a boycott," she said, adding, "Nobody gains by that.”