Mon09012014

The Sochi Olympics: No Shoes, Please

Like many, I’ve been watching the Olympics since I was a child. In any era, the Games are entertaining, inspirational, unifying and educational. They can also be divisive, political and corrupt. However, one hopes that at the end of the day, an athlete’s ability to compete at the highest level – safely and fairly – is given the top spot on any list of priorities.

The Sochi Olympics don’t give me that “it’s all about the athletes” vibe. In fact, they’ve been nicknamed “Putin’s Olympics” ostensibly for Vladimir Putin’s instrumental role in securing the 2014 Winter Games for Russia.

But there’s more to it than that. Sochi, a subtropical city and seaside resort, isn’t the natural choice for a winter sports venue, but the area does host two of Putin’s private dachas. One of them is built within Sochi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the guise of being a facility conducting meteorological research. Putin also has longstanding ties to individuals who have benefited from new construction in and around Sochi – among them Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, who won contracts totaling $7.4 billion. Finally, it is well known that Putin’s intention is to use the Sochi Games to bolster Russia’s image as a global power player, especially among its own citizenry.

No harm in a little self-promotion, but not at the expense of participating athletes who need well-built facilities, optimum weather conditions and minimized threat from terrorist organizations hell-bent on violent disruption. In these matters, I think that the Sochi athletes are being utterly disrespected. Our own State Department has real fears about an active network of Islamic insurgents in the North Caucasus. There are daily reports about undesirable snow conditions in 60 F weather. Construction in the case of snowboarding’s half-pipe has been described as both “dangerous” and “crappy.” And we’ve all seen pictures of disconcerting yellow tap water.

Russia has spent a record $51 billion on the Sochi Games. Estimates of how much has gone to cover graft and corruption expenses – kickbacks, bribes, theft – range from 20 to 60 percent, but there’s no way to ascertain an accurate figure. For example, Olympstroy, the state Olympic construction authority, has been investigated by the Sochi Internal Affairs department for criminal conduct surrounding an estimated $800 million, but few believe the case will ever see daylight in an actual court of law. Of course, none of this directly impacts athletic performance. But there’s something unseemly about illicit activity of this magnitude occurring under the auspices of the Olympic Games. Organized crime should be organized under some other flag.

Regarding the negative publicity generated by stories of Russia’s brutal and rampant homophobia, reports are that Putin doesn’t give a hoot. In Russia, a person who is beaten for being gay, who then goes to the police for help, can expect to be shrugged off or even blamed. Putin’s OK with us knowing about that. Fair enough, but I don’t think the Olympic Games should be in locales where violence and corruption are routinely ignored. It may not matter as far as competing goes, but it matters. And I believe that the International Olympics Committee should start giving a hoot.

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