I love the Olympic Games, especially the winter Olympics with its thrilling events on snow and ice. And it saddens me that this year’s games will take place under a pall of fear, corruption and controversy in Sochi, Russia.
The Sochi games have already been called a catastrophe by some. But I won’t be rooting for failure there. I will be cheering and hoping for Sochi’s success and safety when the games open on Friday.
The Olympics should have been a moment for Russia to shine on the world stage. Instead, the 2014 games have fallen under a shadow.
What should have been a grand and proud moment for the Russian people has been tarnished by mismanagement, exorbitant costs, environmental damage, security concerns, criticism of Russia’s human rights record, and calls for boycotts. The games will also take place under the specter of protests against Russia’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, in neighboring Ukraine.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has made the games his own vanity project. He lobbied for the games to be held at his favorite holiday destination and has personally overseen the project.
The Olympics are traditionally a time to put aside political differences and celebrate the human spirit and athleticism. The Olympics are also an opportunity to showcase the host country’s culture and traditions. And while this year’s games have thus far thrust a harsh spotlight on Russia, they are also an opportunity for the world to learn about the North Caucasus region, its hardy people and its troubled history.
The International Olympic Committee took a risk by awarding the games to Sochi back in 2007. Sochi was a small and sleepy coastal resort town on the Black Sea, not ready to host a major international sporting event. And while it is ringed by the stunning Caucasus Mountains, Sochi has a humid subtropical climate and will be the warmest city to ever host a winter Olympics.
At an estimated $51 billion, the Sochi Olympics are already the most expensive Olympics in history, exceeding the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing and costing more than all the previous winter Olympics combined. There are numerous reports of waste, corruption and overruns, but Putin swears that the sites are ready for action.
Sochi is situated in the restive North Caucasus region, near the volatile Russian regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, where a violent Islamic insurgency has smoldered for several years. It is also near Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which broke away from Georgia and remain disputed territories. Putin has promised a secure “ring of steel” around Sochi, but recent bombings in the southern Russian city of Volgograd and worries about “black widow” Chechen suicide bombers have raised fears.
Sochi is also near the site of the mass expulsion of Circassians, an indigenous people of the Northwest Caucasus, who were driven out of Russia to the Ottoman Empire after the Caucasian War in the 1860s and 1870s. An untold number perished. Today, surviving Circassians demand that Russia apologize for the mass deaths and dislocations.
Fast forward to the present, and another community is demanding apologies and seeking assurances. The international LGBT community has expressed opposition to Russia’s harsh anti-gay laws and President Obama and several other Western leaders have declined to attend the games, presumably to express displeasure at Russia’s treatment of LGBT people.
Others -- including U.S. skating star Brian Boitano, who announced publically that he was gay after being named to the U.S. delegation -- have urged Americans and LGBT athletes to attend the games, noting that simply being present will speak volumes about tolerance and acceptance.
As a young girl in Moscow in an expat family, I watched every Olympics and shared the country’s love of the games. The Soviet Union and then Russia have been Olympic powerhouses. Since 1994, Russia has won 488 Olympic medals (including 169 gold medals) -- second only to the United States. For a country so central to the modern Olympics, it is remarkable that this is only the second time Russia has hosted the games.
I witnessed the massive preparations in Moscow for the 1980 summer Olympic Games hosted by the Soviet Union. Whole blocks were razed to make way for stadiums, streets were repaved, potholes were filled, buildings were freshly painted and taxis were spruced up. It was a crushing disappointment to Muscovites when 65 countries, led by the United States, boycotted the games because of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. That led in turn to a Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, Calif. These were missed opportunities to build bridges, encourage people-to-people interaction, and promote communication and understanding.
The Olympic Games showcase the ideals of athletic achievement, friendly competition and sportsmanship. Politics are never absent, of course, and the Olympic goal of “building a better world through sport” may be naïve -- but I for one will be waving my Olympic flag and will cheer not just for Team USA but for Sochi and the Russian people, hoping for the success of these games.