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The Price of Sochi

News & Features | November 25, 2013

Each year, the Olympic Games continue to outdo themselves in grandiosity, overall costs, and now, controversy. Next year’s Winter Olympics have emerged as the subject of constant media attention. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) surprised many with its announcement of the Games’ location: Sochi, Russia.

Sochi, the subtropical resort city situated along the Black Sea, beat out six other cities that applied to host the event that will begin on February 7th. But given the location’s physical conditions––as well as the Russian government’s recently passed anti-gay law––people are challenging Sochi as an appropriate spot for the Winter Games. And with the costs of the event reaching exponential highs, concerns about the implications of the Games go beyond this year’s host site. Especially if hosted by a potentially hostile environment, have the Olympics gone too far in terms of labor and expenses? The event’s controversial location has kept it in the spotlight throughout its preparations, forcing us to evaluate the Olympics’ worth altogether.

The primary concern about the upcoming Olympics is the consequences for LGBT participants and spectators. Russian president Vladimir Putin’s June signing of legislation banning “the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” for minors produced worldwide criticism. The law forbids any discussion of gay rights or homosexual relationships that might be heard by children. Any instances of this so-called “gay propaganda” can result in fines of several thousand dollars or deportation for foreigners. But the vaguely-worded law leaves room for interpretation, giving leverage to nationwide homophobic attitudes and behavior. In Russia, the law has manifested itself through an absence of gay pride or any discourse related to homosexuality. Acknowledging one’s own homosexuality is considered a crime on Russian soil. The Russian LGBT community has been effectively silenced, at least on a public level.

Global protests of Russia’s anti-gay law have taken various forms, beginning with a boycott of Russian vodka brands. The Olympics in Sochi immediately became a hot topic for protest; various countries voiced their concerns that LGBT athletes and fans at the event would face discrimination and possibly arrest for vocalizing anything at all about their sexuality. Petitions and letters calling for the repeal of the anti-gay law flooded into respective governments. Organized by human rights group All Out, Swiss petitioners presented the IOC with 320,000 signatures demanding the abolishment of the law before the Sochi Games. Members of the U.S. Congress demanded that Secretary of State John Kerry “take steps to ensure the safety of gay American athletes.” The IOC, however, issued a statement in September saying that Russia had not violated the Olympic Charter. Chairman of the IOC’s coordination commission Jean-Claud Killy said, “The Olympic Charter states that all segregation is completely prohibited, whether it be on the ground of race, religion, color, or other, on the Olympic territory… As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied.”

With an adamant IOC, Olympic fans have been confronted with the question of whether or not to support an event that takes place in such a discriminatory environment. Talk of Sochi Olympic boycotts became popular, led by fans, athletes, journalists, and even government officials such as U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham. While some activist groups call for boycotting next year’s games altogether, others––such as the larger LGBT community in Sochi––request subtler protests: rainbow athletic uniforms, withdrawals of Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, and the addition of LGBT symbols on their products. But given the formal regulations of the Games, it is unlikely that we’ll be seeing rainbow-painted Coke cans at the event. The IOC stated that it will enforce Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” So Russia’s law prohibits gays from showing any signs of their sexuality, and the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes at the Games from showing any support for the gay community.

Despite the obvious moral perversions embedded in the Olympic technicalities, the show must go on––at least according to President Obama. In August, the President rejected plans to boycott the Sochi Games, asking protestors to think of the American athletes who have sacrificed so much for the event. The Olympics are, after all, about the sports competitions and participating athletes. But is the pure, athletic nature of the Olympics still alive?

The 2014 Games are making history as the most expensive and extravagant ones yet. The estimated cost of the Sochi event has reached 51 billion dollars and continues to rise, beating out the 40 billion dollar Beijing Summer Games. The Olympic site, a two-year-long, nationwide project, has been named the world’s largest construction ground. The cost is largely due to Sochi’s transformation from a subtropical city––which usually rests at a mild ten degrees Celsius in February––to a location appropriate for alpine events. Snow collected from previous winters and generated by snow-makers will make the competitions possible––along with the pocket money reserved to manufacture winter in Sochi. Located in the mountains about half an hour outside of the city, these events will require highly functioning infrastructure to host the 500,000 expected spectators. Whereas the last Winter Games, hosted by Vancouver, took place in an accessible city with preexisting winter weather, the 2014 Games require a transformation of both climate and infrastructure. When it comes to the Olympics, the desirable location comes first, and the environment necessary for the actual competition is later built around it.

U.S. Olympic Committee official Patrick Sandusky characterized the Olympic preparations as instrumental for the Russian government: “You can sense that this is very much on the happening agenda for President Putin and the federal government beyond just the organizing committee and the regional area of Sochi. This is a big project for Russia.” It’s a big project, and it’s a big statement; an under-commercialized region of Russia has quickly become the world’s most revolutionized fishbowl. The grandiosity of Olympic preparations continues to spend governmental funding in the hopes of a resulting increase in tourism and affluence. Especially now, at a time when Russia is under political scrutiny, its government continues to strive for greatness.

This year’s Torch Relay contributes to these efforts, as the torch went far beyond the traditional journey from Olympia, Greece to the host site. In addition to venturing up Europe’s tallest mountain, sinking to the bottom of the world’s deepest lake, and traveling to the North Pole in a nuclear-powered icebreaker, the torch recently completed its first spacewalk. Tethered to two Russian cosmonauts, the torch orbited 261 miles above Earth for about half an hour. Although the Olympic torch was taken aboard a spacecraft in the 1996 Summer Olympics, its November 9th spacewalk was the first instance of the Olympic torch’s presence in free space. At an expected 400,000 miles, the ongoing torch relay will make history as the longest to precede any Winter Olympics.

The list of superlatives goes on for the Sochi Games, as does the list of concerns surrounding the event. The IOC approved Olympic construction at Sochi National Park and nearby nature reserves, plans that have been under fire by environmentalists around the world. Adding to environmental concerns, it was revealed in October that Russia broke its “Zero Waste” Olympic pledge; Russia promised the most environmentally-clean Games in history when bidding for the host position. But Russia’s rail monopoly has since been dumping large amounts of construction waste into an illegal landfill. The landfill, located near a water protection zone, has been linked to Sochi’s water supply. “Water from here will be contaminating Sochi’s fresh water springs for the next 10 to 15 years,” said Vladimir Kimaev, a member of the Caucasus Environmental Watch. Environmentalists have condemned Russia’s 51 billion dollar budget for lacking any provisions to handle construction waste. These concerns are especially ironic given that it is “the year of the environment” for Russia. Maintaining its national cause that varies year to year, the country has been hosting a series of events honoring the environment. So, as well as proving detrimental to the environment, Olympic preparations are manifesting the hypocrisy of the Russian government.

But accusations of environmental hypocrisy are mild concerns for the country that is under fire for its broader politics; prominent figures in the media have characterized Russia as “monstrous,” “barbaric,” and “criminal.” Transcending next year’s Olympics, boycotts of cultural events involving Russia or Russian participants have pervaded international news. New York City’s Metropolitan Opera faced picket-line protests on its opening night of the fall season. The Met’s black-tie gala celebrated the premier performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”––featuring Russian stars Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev. Guests at the Russian-themed event were confronted by rainbow-clad protesters, both outside the opera house and inside the theater.

Participants shouted, “Putin, end your war on Russian gays!” and cried that the Russian performers’ “silence” was “killing Russian gays.” Preceding the event, 9,000 online petitioners called for the Met to dedicate the opening performance to gay rights in Russia. Drafted by a gay American composer, Andrew Rudin, the petition argued that the opera’s performers supported an anti-gay government. Rudin said in an interview, “Here’s a chance for the Met, in an entirely benign and positive way, to use its great cultural influence to be relevant, to do something positive.” General manager of the Met Peter Gelb, however, refused. In an opinion article for Bloomberg News, Gelb stated, “Artists from dozens of different countries––some with poor human rights records––will be performing at the Met. If we were to devote tonight’s performance to Russian injustice, how could we possibly stop there?”

Taking Obama’s stance on the Olympic boycott, Gelb emphasized the artistic content of the Met rather than its political implications. Both institutions present us with a crisis of values, the thin line between a cultural endowment and a violation of human rights. The establishment of the Sochi games, however, is complicated by various infringements on the rights of Russian citizens, powerless to the government’s choices. Draining governmental revenue in the name of grandeur, destroying and contaminating Russian soil, spotlighting a hatred of gays that has been compared to the Holocaust: these are the accomplishments of next year’s Olympics.

According to various officials, we shouldn’t boycott the Olympics because political statements would overshadow the hard work and cultural significance they are designed to showcase. But the Games became political as soon as Sochi was designated the Olympic site. We cannot completely separate the Games within the stadium from the external implications of our participation in the event. Our financial support and presence in Sochi inextricably associate us with the government’s recent transgressions. But Obama has led our nation away from boycotting the Olympics, and the Games will proceed as planned. So for the sake of the athletes––and the sake of culture, however excessively grand––we’re going to have to try. When sitting in Sochi’s Olympic stadium, we must appreciate the world’s foremost sports competition with the earnest fervor of spectators past. This time around, however, we must have an understanding of the sacrifices made to enable the event––and a determination to draw the line somewhere.