Maybe you’re wondering why the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics to a Russian resort town with an average winter temperature in the 40s and a dearth of snow. You aren’t alone. $ince nobody know$ why the Committee doe$ anything, the $election will remain a mystery.
But potentially balmy temperatures are just one of the potential problems facing Sochi, which sits on the Black Sea and features lush vegetation and a “humid subtropical” climate. Political issues abound, corruption has been a constant and the threat of violence from neighboring parties is very real.
Let the games begin!
Snowball’s chance in…Sochi?
So, the IOC picked one of the few places in Russia that doesn’t get cold. Brilliant! In fact, events have been cancelled there over the past couple years because of high temperatures, rain and insufficient flake totals. What do you expect from a place that has palm trees? Does this mean the alpine and Nordic events will be contested via video games? Nope. Those clever Russians have been stockpiling snow for a year, hiding it under special blankets, and have 400 snow cannons at the ready to dust the mountains. They’re saving water to freeze, too. And there’s plenty of it. Heavy rains in September led to mudslides and the declaration of a state of emergency. It may be the winter sports equivalent of plastic surgery, but at least the show will go on. Probably.
Graft, Corruption, Business as Usual
According to a report issued by the country’s opposition leaders last May, nearly $30 billion of the $51 billion Olympic budget has gone to businessmen and government officials in the form of bribes and kickbacks. There were few, if any, competitive bids for work, and friends of President Vladimir Putin have profited greatly. “The Sochi Olympics are an unprecedented thieves’ caper, in which representatives of Putin’s government are mixed up, along with the oligarchs close to the government,” wrote former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.
Law and Order (Hopefully)
You may remember that the Russians had a little dust-up with the breakaway republic of Chechnya at the end of the last century. Despite a victory by the favorites, there has been some continued violence there and in the neighboring areas of Dagestan and Ingushetia, which just happen to be close to Sochi.
In October, a suicide bomber with ties to Chechen Islamic militants blew up a bus in southern Russia, killing six. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has called for attacks on civilians and urged his charges to target the Olympics. Surveillance will be high, both by old-style spies and via newfangled electronic methods.
Expect plenty of undesirables to be collected and relocated to areas where they can do no harm. The Russians will deploy between 40-50,000 police and soldiers. They’ll use drone helicopters. There will be a naval presence in the Black Sea. Cossacks will maraud through the streets. Okay, so maybe that last one is a little over the top. But these have been nicknamed the “Gulag Olympics” by some human-rights activists.
Discrimination R Us
In a move that would have made Joe Stalin proud, Putin in June signed a law prohibiting the promotion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships to minors. Gay athletes and spectators fear arrest and harassment. Advocates are howling that the IOC refuses to confront Russia on this law and declare it in violation of the Olympic anti-discrimination principles. When IOC liaison Jean-Claude Killy announced that “The spirit of the Games is awakening here,” he was ridiculed for accommodating a government that traffics in hate, prejudice and violence. Some athletes vow to defy the law, which allows Russian leaders to express homophobic attitudes on TV. New Zealand has promised to protect its gay athletes, most notably speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who plans to compete with a rainbow pin on his uniform, in direct violation of the law. It will be interesting to see how the Russians deal with him and if they are capable of taking the world stage without behaving offensively.
—By Michael Bradley