The Olympics are a unique opportunity for the many nations of the world to come together in competition through sport. Inevitably when different countries come together, political, social and cultural differences are brought to the attention of the public, and the current Winter Olympic Games in Sochi are no exception. Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed his personal reputation on the line for the Sochi Games, and in many ways the games’ success will be seen as reflective of Russia as a whole. At a budget that has surpassed $50 billion the games are the most expensive Olympics of all time, more than the 2012 London Summer Games but also more expensive than the previous 21 Winter Olympic Games combined dating back to 1924. In addition to the allegations of rampant corruption on an unprecedented scale, Russia has been criticized over the decision to host in Sochi specifically, its stance on LGBT issues, and problems with human rights in general.
The $50+ billion price tag on the games is so notably suspect because of the sub-par conditions of many of the facilities and the lack of accountability for the money spent. A senior International Olympic Committee official stated that it was common knowledge that a third of total spending on the games disappeared due to corruption perpetrated by business associates with connections to Putin. Others place the figure even higher with some alleging that well over half the money allocated to the games were pocketed. A popular Twitter account highlighting many of the hastily and incomplete construction results has garnered more than 300,000 followers, but also glosses over a larger problem. Unfortunately, the total lack of accountability for billions of dollars spent in Sochi is reflective of the status quo in Russia, a deeply ingrained issue that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world.
Located on the Black Sea the Sochi area was previously best known as a summer beach getaway for many Russians complete with palm trees. The nearby ski resort of Rosa Khutor in the northern Caucasus mountains is 30 miles away where the alpine events are taking place. Also close by are many smaller regions that have sought autonomy or independence, including Chechnya and South Ossetia, the latter of which Russia and Georgia fought a brief war over in 2008. Perhaps most vocally, the ethnic Circassian people have expressed their disdain for hosting the games specifically at Sochi because of its historical significance as the site of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russians in the late 19th century. For further context, in addition to the proximity to disenfranchised and separatist groups, Sochi is comparably equidistant from the heart of the Middle East to the capital of Russia, Moscow.
After multiple bombings in Volgograd a city in the north Caucasus in October and December that killed 7 and 34 people respectively, the issue of security has been paramount for Russia. Journalists and experts have accused Russian security of engaging in mass surveillance of virtually all electronic devices and even spying in bathrooms, but at the end of the day if any and all attacks are prevented, Russian will likely assert it was all worth it. Furthermore, attracting intense criticism and controversy has been Russia’s stance on LGBT issues, specifically the law passed in 2013 by a vote of 436-0 banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors. The conservative Russian culture and the government itself have quietly ignored the issue in regards to the games and this is likely to continue in order to avoid a backlash. The law has not been actively enforced in any context at the Olympic Games, but it has simultaneously served as a platform for discussion and advocacy on the issue in the West.
While the Olympics are largely regarded as a tremendous opportunity to gain international prestige and promote a country’s stance on the world stage, the problems and conflicts that exist within and because of the games should not be ignored for the sake of convenience. Russia and Putin in many ways are using the Olympic games as a tool to further their own means, and the extent to how successful the outcome will be remains to be seen. Hopefully, the attention and pressure to address many of the issues outlined above, from corruption to human rights, may influence Russia to implement positive change in the future.