By Evan Hurst (Originally Posted Feb. 7, 2014)
A friend of mine just posted this on Facebook:
“If you’re having a bad day today, just remember that it could be worse. You could be in Sochi right now.”
I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics, and I cannot remember one instance in my life where I could honestly say that the very last place I would want to be on the entire earth is in the city about to host the Olympics. But I agree with my friend, wholeheartedly.
The Onion captured the sentiment as well:
I think the Russian government and the IOC thought this would all blow over. The old guard good ol’ boys at the IOC may have long ago realized that they made an egregious error in awarding the games to Sochi, a city next to a war zone in a corrupt, human rights-abusing, increasingly totalitarian state presided over by a leader who has a hell of a lot more faux machismo than good sense. And the swaggering buffoons in the Russian government seemed to think that if they awarded sweetheart contracts to all their best friends, that they would somehow be able to pull off something spectacular, and that the world would forget about all the reasons why this pick was embarrassing to begin with. Instead, Russia continues to step in it, forcing us all to look with an even keener eye at the disaster that is the Sochi Olympics. Let us be clear: even if the Games go off without a hitch, at least to broadcast television’s eye, 2014 will go down as a stain on Olympic history. That’s a damn shame, because there are so many athletes, from so many nations, who have been fighting for this chance to compete for their entire lives, only to have their experience marred by the mismanagement, corruption, incompetence and bigotry of the host nation, aided and abetted by the IOC.
Let us count the ways, shall we?
Much has already been made of the conditions that have greeted journalists and spectators this week in anticipation of Friday’s opening ceremonies. Some of the conditions are simply silly, like this actual menu in a Sochi diner…
Some of the issues are absurdly unacceptable, like the fact that hotels are still very much under construction, spewing water everywhere, the internet is hanging out of the wall, etc. Just look at these pictures and tweets:
Clearly, Sochi and Russia are not ready for the big leagues.
Another issue journalists and spectators alike have dealt with is the fact that all their electronic devices are being hacked, seemingly the second they deplane in Sochi:
Being a reporter at the Sochi Olympic Games just got even worse.
NBC News’ Richard Engel said that upon arriving in Russia to cover the upcoming event, he was hacked “almost immediately” — and privacy is not something visitors should expect to have.
“It doesn’t take long here for someone to try to tap into your laptop, cellphone or tablet,” he said Tuesday night.
Engel decided to test Russia’s privacy system with the help of American computer security expert Kyle Wilhoit, who set him up with two brand new computers and a phony identity, with fake names and addresses. When Engel connected them to the Internet in Sochi, he said he quickly received a suspicious email and was shocked when his computer was hijacked immediately after opening the email.
“In a minute, hackers were snooping around,” he said. “The same thing happened with my cellphone — it was very fast and very professional.”
What a lovely country you have, Mr. Putin.
The athletes are being affected too. Apparently, one of the snowboarding courses is so unsafe that a top Norwegian medal contender has already broken his collarbone, likely ruining his Olympic dream:
Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo’s crash in practice and complaints from other athletes that some jumps were too steep have prompted organizers to modify the slopestyle course for the Sochi Olympics.
Horgmo, a strong medal contender, was treated in a hospital after crashing Monday while attempting a difficult trick on a rail near the top of the course.
Team manager Thomas Harstad said the 26-year-old Horgmo landed heavily on his face and right shoulder. The Norwegian media later reported Horgmo had fractured his collarbone and was likely to be ruled out of the Olympics.
“It looks pretty sketchy, the rails are sticky,” said Roope Tonteri, the 2013 world champion in men’s slopestyle. “I think they wanted to make big kickers, and it is not really good for riders, and it is not really safe. I just don’t want to get injured. It is not a really fun course to ride.”
(Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)
Other issues have exposed malicious cruelty, as it has been reported that Sochi is dealing with its stray dog problem by picking them up and taking them to be killed:
A pest control company has been employed to deal with stray dogs, but, although there have been noticeably fewer around the venues, there were still some running around the Olympic Park on Monday.
Alexei Sorokin, boss of the pest control firm, said his company was involved in what he described as the “catching and disposing”‘ of dogs.
He said he had attended a rehearsal of the Olympic opening ceremony last week and saw a stray dog walking in on the performers.
“A dog ran into the Fisht Stadium, we took it away,” he said. “God forbid something like this happens at the actual opening ceremony. This will be a disgrace for the whole country.”
Perhaps the country should have started catching and spaying and neutering dogs years ago when the IOC mistakenly chose Sochi for the 2014 Olympics.
When confronted with one of these issues by a journalist having a personal issue, Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Organizing Committee was flippant and dismissive, as if unaware that his nation’s embarrassment is currently being live-tweeted around the world:
One cohort that doesn’t have to deal with these issues are those who are documented as disagreeing with Putin’s regime. The Russian government has denied access to the Games to political activists, ostensibly as way to keep the event “safe”:
SOCHI, Russia — The Russian hosts of the 2014 Winter Games made clear long ago they would brook no political protests at the Olympics, and now, it seems, they are having second thoughts about allowing dissidents even to attend as spectators.
The Russian Olympic Committee has quietly prohibited several Russian political activists from attending sporting events by denying them documents known as Olympic passports, or fan passes, which spectators need in addition to tickets to gain access to sporting venues.
The passports were required as part of the security precautions for the Games, which will be held in the vicinity of a long-running insurgency. All spectators must register online and then pick up the pass at an airport or a distribution center; a ticket alone will not allow admittance to a sporting event.
But the harassment of the activists seems to go beyond counterterrorism. Since returning to power in 2012, President Vladimir V. Putin has cracked down on all forms of dissent, jailing activists, curtailing public demonstrations and muzzling private news outlets in an effort to contain an opposition movement that blossomed in previous years.
To all the American fundamentalists currently cozying up to Russia, let us be clear: this would be like if the Olympics were being held in New York City and President Obama quietly denied anyone with Republican or Tea Party links access to the Games.
Another group that has fallen victim to Russia’s policies are ecological activists, who were set to publish a report on conditions surrounding the Games. One activist was arrested and sentenced to fifteen days in jail for allegedly swearing in public, sending a chilling message about any expressions of dissent or protest aimed at Putin’s regime. Additionally, pro-LGBT activists were cited in St. Petersburg for holding signs comparing the 2014 Sochi games to 1936 in Berlin:
A pair of Russian activists with the group Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality held a brief demonstration at the Olympic countdown clock in St. Petersburg Wednesday, comparing this month’s Winter Games in Sochi with the 1936 games held in Nazi Germany.
The demonstration, which saw activists unfurl banners in the shape of pink triangles emblazoned with the text “Berlin 1936 = Sochi 2014,” was originally scheduled to take place on two platforms inside the St. Petersburg Metro, but police reportedly learned of the protest and detained several activists before the demonstration even began.
In response, members of the Straight Alliance for LGBT Equality shifted gears, and approached the Olympic countdown clock in central St. Petersburg. At approximately 8 p.m. local time, Alliance members Natalia Tsymbalova and Mikhail Gerasimov staged single pickets, holding up their banners as photographers and activists captured the demonstration.
Of course, aside from the climate of censorship and stifling of dissent, these games are also being held under a greater threat of violence and terrorism than any in recent memory. When the IOC chose Sochi for the Olympics, they chose a town in a region that has been beset by war and ethnic cleansing for generations. Just recently, the U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Sochi, warning of the possible presence of “black widows,” suicide bombers who are the wives of deceased militants. The U.S. Government seems to feel that there is enough risk present at the Games that they have deployed two warships to the Black Sea, off the coast. I’m sure that makes all the athletes and their families feel safe. For more, we go to the Islamic separatist Caucasus Emirate, who have stated that they’d really like to kill people during the Olympic Games:
Over the summer the leader of the militant group Caucasus Emirate urged Islamic separatists to use force to disrupt the Olympics, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” For generations, the area has been the center of ethnic and religious strife between native Islamic peoples and Russian forces.
“This is the only Games in history where there’s been an announced credible threat well before the Games,” said Bill Rathburn, the director of security for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, who has worked on security issues for cities, foreign governments, organizing committees and sponsors at six Olympics. “Since that threat was made last July, there’s been at least three terrorist incidents that have demonstrated their capability of carrying out that threat. So I think it’s very, very real.”
According to Brian Michael Jenkins, the senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and a longtime expert on the topic, the intensity of the threat is unprecedented because of the volatility of the region.
“It’s being held in an arena of two wars with active continuing terrorist campaigns,” Jenkins said.
One running theory to answer the question “WHY?!” is that Putin feels the need to prove that he’s got that whole region of the world under control, that the longstanding wars of the North Caucasus are over, and that under his rule, the region has a bright future. Putin seems to feel the need to prove a lot of things. To be fair, when the IOC chose Sochi, Russia hadn’t had the opportunity to show the world how stable that region is by becoming embroiled in a full-scale war during the 2008 Olympic Games.
Another “WHY?!” should be directed at the IOC itself. When the decision was made to hold the Olympics in Sochi, Putin was at the height of his power, but Russia had not remotely proven itself. When the vote happened in 2006, Sochi lost out in the first round, to a city in South Korea. Russia put on quite a song and dance to move the vote into their column, but the real story may be behind the scenes work by a Russian businessman named Gafur Rakhimov, known as one of the world’s leading heroin kingpins. Rakhimov was publicly thanked for helping to sway the votes of certain Asian nations, the crucial votes that Russia needed to secure the Olympics for Sochi.
Regardless, the selection has proven to be poor as an indicator of Russia’s reemergence as a world power, as the Russian economy is in shambles at the moment, and the $50 billion price tag for these Games are coming under harsh scrutiny. There have been allegations of severe corruption and cronyism in the planning for these Games, the most expensive in history.
Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, has responded to the many valid concerns and complaints about these games by lashing out at heads of state who are unwilling to let Russia’s petulant, backward slide into corruption and human rights abuses go unmentioned:
IOC President Thomas Bach accused world leaders Tuesday of using the Sochi Olympics as a political platform “on the backs of the athletes,” and of snubbing the games without even being invited.
Three days before the opening of Russia’s first Winter Games, Bach used a hard-hitting speech to call out politicians for using the Olympics to make an “ostentatious gesture” serving their own agendas.
Without naming any individuals, Bach’s comments appeared directed at President Barack Obama and European politicians who have taken stands against Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
The Olympics, Bach said, should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”
“Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes,” he said at a ceremony attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.
“In the extreme, we had to see a few politicians whose contributions to the fight for a good cause consisted of publicly declining invitations they had not even received.”
The buildup to the Olympics has been overshadowed by Western criticism of the anti-gay law and Russia’s record on human rights and other issues, making Sochi among the most politically charged games in years.
Western heads of state are indeed staying home from the Olympics, but Bach is simply being surly and childish to suggest that figures like President Obama “weren’t invited,” as if there’s any such thing as a modern Olympics at which the United States president is not invited.
Last but certainly not least, the world has learned over the last several months about the anti-gay pogrom Russia has been waging on her citizens. Before, it was just journalists and political dissidents being jailed and disappeared, but lately, Russia has decided to deflect attention from its stagnant economy and shrinking population by blaming it on gay people. As I detailed months back, American anti-gay activists, having lost at home, have embarked on an extensive campaign to assist Russia in demonizing and criminalizing its LGBT citizens. The anti-gay laws in Russia have essentially made it a crime to be openly gay, under the guise of “protecting children” from learning about the “gay lifestyle.” The full ramifications of these laws are not yet known and likely will not be until these Olympics are shuttered and consigned to the scrap heap of history. Once the international spotlight is gone, it is likely that the real danger will begin, and that’s saying something, considering the fact that the campaign so far has created a violent, anti-gay climate, led by neo-Nazis, that has led to events such as those depicted in this video from Human Rights Watch, of gay men being brutally beaten in Russia:
American anti-gay activists like Austin Ruse and Janice Shaw Crouse are partnering with the World Congress of Families, an international network of “pro-family” groups which is holding its annual conference this year inside the Kremlin. Because their anti-gay bigotry is stronger than their memories, they have decided that Russia, with its faltering economy, cronyism and rampant corruption, is a stronger, more capitalist nation than the United States, and moreover that Russia is a more “Christian” nation. Most of the world’s Christians wouldn’t recognize the Christianity promulgated by Crouse, Ruse and others, one that includes murder, beatings, prosecution and persecution in the name of “family values,” but their actions are revelatory of what happens when extremists aren’t constrained by the rule of law. Of course, American anti-gay activists, many of whom are simply in it for the money given to them by unwitting, scared donors, may have found like-minded souls in Russia, considering the 2012 controversy over the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church and his $30,000 wrist jewelry.
For more on what it’s like for average gays and lesbians living in Russia today, please read Jeff Sharlet’s excellent report, “Inside the Iron Closet: What It’s Like to Be Gay in Putin’s Russia.”
For these and so many other reasons, and regardless of how pretty the opening ceremonies look on TV, Russia is unfit to be hosting the Olympic Games. But it’s happening, so let’s sum this up: To those who have been training your whole lives for a moment in the sun at these Olympics, good luck. If you’re an American, we’re proud of you back home. We’re sorry that your experience is being overshadowed by the poor choices of Russia and the IOC. To those journalists who are in Sochi on assignment, please stay safe, and we hope your experience gets better. We encourage you while in Sochi to keep the puff pieces to a minimum, and take this opportunity to truly expose modern Russia for what it is. To any LGBT people from abroad, may you return home safely to nations that respect your dignity. And finally, to Russian LGBT people, political dissidents, journalists and others who are in danger in Russia simply for being who you are or conducting your careers with integrity, rest assured that, long after these Games are over and the hastily constructed buildings of Sochi are being sold for scrap, we will still be fighting for you.
But I won’t be tuning in. Leave it to Russia to render me completely disinterested in watching events I’ve looked forward to since childhood.