The Winter Olympics in Sochi
by Laura Schmitz
The Olympic Games of 2014 in Sochi kicked off on Friday 8th February. Beforehand, the news was full of predominantly negative reports about the venue and the Russia’s infamous politics in general. An obvious link may be drawn between Russia and the current turmoil and protests in Ukraine, which were sparked off by the political play behind suspending the association agreement with the European Union. The law banning ‘gay propaganda’ made its contribution to the negative image of the eastern bear, with Putin’s Russia finding its place in the news ever since. The beginning of the Winter Olympics in Sochi served only to boost this development.
The Opening Ceremony on Friday was quite impressive and breath-taking. Dancers, singers and actors performed during the ceremony and guided a colourful journey throughout Russian history. There appeared to be a problem with the Olympic symbol of five rings. It was portrayed by five snowflakes and, in the moment of presentation, the fifth snowflake ring did not open. The Olympic symbol was incomplete. But this relatively minor issue is only the top of the iceberg. The organisers have troubles with unfinished and dirty hotels, which were destined to provide journalist from all over the world with a comfortable workplace to report about the Olympic Games. The tab water has a yellow-brownish colour and is unsafe to drink. Hundreds of street dogs are roaming around the Olympic venues. And pictures of Putin himself are placed on bedside tables in the rooms, just to remind the guests where they are.
These issues seem to make a stay in Sochi unpleasant to some of the hotel guests or spectators of the games. If compared to major human rights violations though, they become minor and arguably ridiculous. As reported in the media several times before the start of the Games, problems of human rights violations were apparent in relation to the organisation and upbringing of the Games. Most notably, the law issued on ‘the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ in 2013 received criticism from around the world. Homosexuals can be put into jail for holding hands or kissing in public, as well as gay rights activist can be jailed for promoting LGBT rights. Foreign Agencies have advised tourists and athletes to respect the local laws and abstain from having sex during their stay in Sochi, so they do not upset locals and prevent getting trouble. As also reported by the media, immigrant workers who were responsible for preparing Sochi for the Winter Olympics, built hotels, stadiums and improved public transport, and were sent home without seeing one single cent of payment for their hard work. Consequently, they were deprived of their rights. In the name of animal protection, the society tried to raise awareness of the mass killing of hundreds street dogs in and around Sochi. Forced relocation of locals was frequently reported on as well. Locals had to resettle away from the Olympic campus to step aside for new hotels, restaurants and Olympia venues.
The questions that arise are: was it the right decision to pick Sochi and a country like Russia to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2014? Was it the right decision to give Putin yet another chance to use his propaganda machine? Is it still sport, or just politics? Of course, this was and still is a great chance for the country to show that it is able to deal with such a difficult task and burdensome responsibility as hosting the games. Russia, and especially its citizens, are trying their best. It remains to be seen whether Sochi can wash off the stain of politics and become a cheerful memory for all: athletes, spectators, journalists, homosexuals, politicians and activists. After all, Olympics originally meant putting a stop to the ongoing conflicts. Perhaps we can also hope that the games will bring new subjects to debate and have a lasting impact on the country itself. It could eventually lead to rethinking some of the Russian politics and adapting them to the standards we so eagerly promote.