By Jill Gralow
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's Olympic team have been reassured by Russian President Vladimir Putin's promise that gay athletes will be welcome at next year's Winter Games in Sochi, Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman said on Wednesday.
Russia's adoption of a law banning homosexual "propaganda" among minors in June provoked a wave of criticism in the West and calls from some gay rights groups for a boycott of the Games.
Putin moved to defuse the criticism on Monday by pronouncing that "participants and guests would feel comfortable in Sochi regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation".
Along with the possibility of terror attacks by Chechen or other Islamist militants, it was the main issue threatening to overshadow the run-up to the Games, through which Putin hopes to showcase the modern face of Russia.
Chesterman, who has just returned from an inspection visit to the Black Sea resort, said he was "comfortable" on both counts.
"We have been aware of and dealing with these in the lead up to the Games," he told a news conference in Sydney marking the 100 day countdown to the opening ceremony.
"We are very comfortable with both situations and particularly the gay rights issue.
"We have received strong assurances in the past from leading Russian officials and now with the president coming out very strong yesterday and giving his assurances, our athletes can go to the Games relaxed and able to enjoy themselves which is the way it should be."
Chesterman also said Australia's Winter squad would follow the lead the Summer team plans for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro by making their bases in Sochi alcohol-free zones.
"We are taking the same move in Sochi and the villages will be dry of alcohol," he said.
"We want to create an environment where it is all about performance. I've got to say it has not been an issue with the teams I have been involved with since 1994, so I don't sense that it is a problem but the time is right to do it."
Unlike in the Summer Games, Australia have never been a big player in the Winter Olympics with a total of five gold medals from 18 appearances.
Next year, though, they are hoping to send the biggest ever team to a Winter Games - beating the 40 they sent to the last two Games in Turin and Vancouver - and have targeted their highest medal tally.
"We're predicting our largest team ever, 55 athletes is our projected total at the moment, and it might creep higher and we hope it does," he said.
"We're unashamedly looking for our highest ever medals tally at these Games.
"We've won medals at every games since 1994, three in Vancouver, and it's very exciting to be in a position where we have so many athletes who have set themselves a target of walking away with a medal."
Two golds and a silver in Vancouver in 2010 was Australia's previous best haul.
Torah Bright won snowboard halfpipe gold and Lydia Lassila the aerial freestyle skiing title, while Dale Begg-Smith backed up his Turin gold with a silver in the mogul skiing. All three hope to be in Sochi.
Chesterman said his confidence Australia could better that tally came from world championships and world cup results over the last year, although he admitted the target of a top 15 finish in the medals table was a big ask.
"That's a stretched target I've got to say," he said. "That means we'll have to win four or five medals and I would say that's absolutely a possibility but it is a stretched target.
"But, we have no problem with that... I think by setting that very high goal it meant that there is a lot of pressure on me and my team to make sure we do everything to give our athletes the best chance." (Writing by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by John O'Brien)