TODAY   |  January 18, 2014

Putin: Gays welcome at Sochi but ‘leave children in peace’

“Everyone should feel at ease,” Vladimir Putin told Olympic volunteers, as the Russian president addressed the controversy over a law banning so-called “gay propaganda.” NBC’s Richard Engel reports

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>>> the olympic winter games in russia are just 19 days away, and now russian president vladimir putin is making headlines once again for what many are calling an insensitive comment about gays. we get the latest from our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel .

>> reporter: they're still digging in sochi , with just three weeks to go until the olympics , as vladimir putin moved to diffuse a controversy over a russian law that bans so-called gay propaganda, promoting homosexuality to minors. "we aren't banning anything," he told olympic volunteers. "we aren't rounding up anyone. we have no criminal punishment for such relations. everyone should feel at ease," he added, "but please, leave the children in peace." an insensitive comment, but these are putin 's games in his city. sochi isn't the most natural place to host the winter olympics . there was no infrastructure here. it isn't very cold. more palm trees than snow. and it's not very far from the caucuses. the most dangerous part. but putin likes sochi . it would be like an american president hosting the olympics in crawford, martha's vineyard or kennebunkport. putin denied that the olympics are his pet project, but that's not the way many see it in russia. where putin is president and athlete in chief.

>> putin is a big sportsman. he's very active in judo, he's very active in skiing and his athletic abilities mean that he has something more than the country at stake here. he wants the world to see that he is not only running a country, but he is running a country that is interested in sports.

>> reporter: the olympics are coming. putin 's personal prestige is on the line, as he hosts the games in his favorite retreat and according to his rules. richard engel , nbc news, sochi .