Dogs shot, Pussy Riot whipped: Sochi’s Olympic spectacle

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Sochi / Korea Olympic Committee, Republic of Korea, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Sochi / Korea Olympic Committee, Republic of Korea, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, February 22, 2014 – The Winter Olympics in Sochi will be remembered as one of the most corrupt and destructive Olympics ever staged.

The games have had their high points, including a beautiful opening show, but the Russian government has built the most expensive Potemkin village in history. There is very little for either the Russian government or the International Olympic Committee to be proud of in Sochi. The Sochi Olympics and the looming fiasco in Brazil help make the case that the IOC does not choose Olympic venues for the good of anyone but politicians and the politically connected.

The press has commented at length about the accommodations in Sochi. Few of the hotels were finished, or finished to a western standard. Toilets didn’t work; water didn’t flow from the taps or it was brown and smelled bad; athletes were trapped in elevators, and one bobsledder had to smash a hole through his particle-board bathroom door so that he could escape in time for an interview; reporters discovered that their computers were hacked within minutes of being turned on, when they were fortunate enough to have internet access.

These are standard Russian problems, though, and in mocking their accommodations, reporters were really mocking the reality of every day life for millions of Russians. These Olympics weren’t a failure because Russian hotels aren’t Swiss hotels; no one should have expected that they would be. They were a failure because they amplified the worst of Russia’s failures rather than showing off the best of what Russia and Russians can be.


At their best, Russians are a warm, hospitable people. Their history has been one of brutality, invasion and bloodshed, but it has also been one of endurance, courage, and a culture so brilliant that the rest of the world can only stand in awe. Russian music rises to the heights of German and Italian greatness; Russian literature is unequaled in the western canon; Russian artists and architects took the best that their Italian teachers could offer and made it unmistakably, brilliantly their own. Russian culture is second to none.

The opening ceremonies in Sochi were beautiful because they tapped into the best of Russia. Rather than giving us the inhuman perfection and precision of the Beijing ceremonies, the music, dance and visuals were exquisitely human. They were also kitsch and propaganda – opening ceremonies at Olympic games have become an exercise in grotesque, nationalistic excess – but successful Olympic ceremonies manage to infuse the kitsch with something more. With any luck, the closing ceremonies in Sochi will manage that trick again. But beyond that façade, what these Olympics offered was depressing.

Sochi has been a resort town for decades, but it had no infrastructure to greet hordes of Olympic visitors. That all had to be created from scratch. President Putin’s original estimate of a $12 billion price tag would have been absurd even if his government were honest. The corruption and inattention to quality endemic to Russian construction projects guaranteed a much higher price tag: $55 billion at last count. Fully a third of that has been siphoned off by Kremlin insiders and the Russian mafia – two groups that are practically indistinguishable.

The Sochi Olympics are an environmental disaster. The massive construction projects were scattered around the edges of the Sochi United Nations World Heritage site. Russian President Vladimir Putin built a palatial new dacha in the world heritage site, and there were plans to connect it to the Olympic sites with a new highway until the U.N. protested. There have been reports of foul odors from the direction of the waste processing facilities, and the odds are good that tons of sewage are winding up in watersheds and in the Black Sea.

Russian environmentalists warned that these would be the most environmentally damaging Olympics in history. The Russian government responded by cracking down on environmental activists in the lead-up to the Olympics. A court sentenced Evgeny Vitishko, a member of the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus and critic of Olympic construction projects, to three years in prison. Vitishko was convicted of violating a curfew that a Russian court placed on him for an earlier offense, one that human rights groups claim was entirely manufactured. One of his codefendants, biologist Suren Gazaryan, fled to Estonia to avoid imprisonment.

The Olympics highlighted the worst of the Russian government’s approach to human rights. They built a “ring of steel” around Sochi to prevent a terrorist attack, effectively turning the residents of Sochi into prisoners in their city. Thirty thousand security troops were moved into the city, along with hundreds of whip-wielding Cossacks.

When two members of dissident female band Pussy Riot tried to perform a song in Sochi this week under an Olympic banner, they were whipped by those Cossacks. (Who could possibly make this up?) They were later arrested for theft, but released.

Orders came down to kill every stray dog in Sochi, prompting dog lovers from as far as Moscow to drive to Sochi to save some of them before they were shot. Some in the government might have wanted to do the same with gays, but criticized over laws forbidding homosexual propaganda, Putin declared that the Sochi region would be a gay-friendly region for the duration of the Olympics. The move was vaguely reminiscent of the German decision to avoid overt anti-Semitism during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Rather than emphasize Russian warmth and hospitality, the Olympics have provided a platform for the worst of Russian xenophobia. Russian news commentators have used language to describe foreign competitors, especially Americans and other Anglophones, that plays on crude homosexual insults. The lack of sportsmanship has been appalling as they’ve openly hoped for disaster to strike foreign athletes. Americans who decry the incessant chants of “USA! USA!” and the jingoism of the NBC coverage have been blissfully shielded from Russian coverage by the language barrier.

There have been the usual judging scandals in figure skating events, but those are nearly an Olympic tradition in their own right. We could argue that figure skating – a beautiful display of extraordinary athleticism – really doesn’t belong in the Olympic games, depending as it does on subjective judgments that are open to manipulation and cheating. But that is an argument for another day.

For today, the argument is simpler. The Olympics should no longer be a travelling circus. This business of the IOC holding court around the world as presidents, kings and prime ministers come to grovel is, at its best, an invitation to economic bad judgment, and at worst an invitation to massive corruption, environmental destruction, displacement of local residents, and window dressing by brutal, authoritarian regimes.

Sochi has highlighted the worst of Russia, and that’s a shame. The Rio de Janeiro Olympics seem set to do the same to Brazil. Enough. Send the summer games back to Greece, find a nice, reliably cold place for the winter games, and stop the construction of multi-billion dollar edifices to national pride that a few years later will look like post-apocalyptic disasters. Take a good look at Sochi. Enjoy the spectacle, then hope that a disaster like that never comes to a city near you.

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  • mstockinger

    I find your argument to be a non-sequitur. Certainly the Russian Federation has not covered themselves with glory as hosts of the Olympics, but graft, corruption, oppression and neglect would still be prominent features of Russian society without the Olympics.

    I lived in Montreal during the 1976 Olympics and in Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympics and like Sochi, each reflected the culture of the host. Montreal was in the spirit of Sochi–represented by the long term debt imposed on Québécois for the construction of the Olympic stadium, ironically named the ‘Big Owe’. It wasn’t merely a case of the city’s oligarchs and mafia taking a bite–my peers jumped at the chance to make four times the minimum wage for doing absolutely nothing for two weeks.

    The contrast with Salt Lake City couldn’t have been more stark. Thousands of residents volunteered considerable time for no greater reward than being part of a landmark event and getting a free ski jacket. The profit from the SLC 2002 Olympics serves to maintain a fleet of winter sport facilities that have resulted in 10% of the U.S. Olympic team hailing from Utah (and many more having trained here…). The games transformed Utah, elevating the city’s national and international profile and bringing in a bewildering array of economic, cultural and sport opportunities.

    The Olympics are a concept, and the execution can vary considerably according to the nature of the nations selected to host and the character of it’s culture. The games reflect the international reality of the human condition–most of us suck, but occasionally we catch a glimpse of humanity’s potential. Like any family, the human family has to live with both extremes.

  • Please remove spaces in all links quoted below to open them:

    1. It is illegal in Russia to say you are gay openly, if a person under 18 years of age even MIGHT be present. A 14 year old girl Maria Novikova was recently charged with “homosexual propaganda to minors” after she came out as a lesbian to her classmates: w w w.channel4. com/news/sochi-gay-laws-14-year-old-fights and w w w .themoscowtimes. com/news/article/9th-grader-accused-of-gay-propaganda/493770 . html#ixzz2sGtTyTFq
    2. Even though the Age of Consent for same sex relationships is currently 16, the same as for heterosexuals, it is illegal to provide counselling to 16-17 year old LGBT on this matter.
    3. It is illegal to protest against your mistreatment if you are disadvantaged by Russia’s
    recriminalisation of homosexuality, and you will be arrested and fined
    if you hold up a piece of paper in the street; Dimitry Isakov was reported to the authorities by his own parents: w w w.huffingtonpost. com/2013/09/05/dmitry-isakov-charged-russia-anti-gay_n_3868060. html. Likewise for the Italian politician Vladimir Luxuria visiting Russia for the Sochi Olympics w w w. theguardian . com/sport/2014/feb/17/sochi-vladimir-luxuria-gay-rights-banner
    4. It IS however, lawful for you to sack someone from their employment solely because they are gay or lesbian: Russian newscaster Anton Krasovksy was sacked on the spot after coming out as gay. This would not happen to a heterosexual: w w w .dailymail. co .uk/news/article-2393001/Russian-television-presenter-Anton-Krasovsky-sacked-coming-live-television.html
    5. It IS legal to evict us from our living accommodation because we are LGBT w w w .buzzfeed. com/davidtuller/far-from-russias-biggest-cities-being-gay-means-being-always
    6. When gangs attack young gay men and post thousands of videos of the torture online that identify the crime in progress, and recruit hundreds of gangs in all major cities across Russia to do the same or worse, the police take no action. w w w .channel4. com/programmes/dispatches/4od#3651833 and w w w . youtube. com/watch?v=AZ_aSl3ktjg. The one and only person ever charged for violence against gays was given a suspended sentence, and was cheered out of the courtroom by his supporters.
    7. It is legal to incite violence against LGBT people, and to call for all gays “to be burned alive in ovens”. Celebrity actor Ivan Okhlobystin was cheered by the audience when he called for this: w w w .theguardian. com/film/2013/dec/16/russian-actor-ivan-okhlobystin-oven-homosexuals-burned-alive
    8. It is legal to say our organs should be buried or burned as “unfit for the continuation of human life”, and if you are Dmitry Kiselyov and say this to a cheering Russian TV audience, you will be promoted to CEO of Vladimir Putin’s national news network w w w . youtube. com/watch?v=M1cLcyams1g and w w w .theguardian. com/world/2013/dec/09/putin-appoints-homophobic-presenter-kiselyov-head-news-agency-homosexuals
    9. It is legal to defame homosexuals as pedophiles, especially if you are President of Russia: worldnews. nbcnews. com/_news/2014/01/19/22358854-russian-president-putin-links-gays-to-pedophiles?lite
    10. A new law is waiting for re-introduction in the Duma after Sochi ends, by United Russia party member Andrei Zhuravlyov that will seize even the biological children from their lesbian or gay parent and place them in the care of Russia’s notorious orphanage system: en. ria. ru/russia/20130905/183185396. html and atrl. net/forums/showthread.php?t=465238
    11. At the next federal Russian elections, there will be a referendum sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church, to make same sex relationships once again a criminal offence in a return to the Stain laws. Recent opinion polls show support for this is likely to exceed 80%, making it a
    certainty to be carried: w w w .buzzfeed. com/lesterfeder/russian-orthodox-church-spokesman-endorses-referendum-to-rec

    Reading and viewing the above, how can Vladimir Putin still claim that Russian LGBT have full citizenship equal to that of heterosexuals?

    bigstory. ap. org/article/how-russia-enforces-its-ban-gay-propaganda

    w w w .youtube. com/watch?v=gLLIPE7iT68