Last Friday, Sochi launched the Winter Olympics with a bang, staging an opening ceremony that was impressively well put together given the bleak state of the city itself. If this over-the-top production was meant to prove anything about the audacity of the Russians – or have the world forget about the terrorist threats, the homophobia, the shack-like accommodation for tourists and journalists, and the “clean-up” of the city’s streets (read: the systematic massacre of its stray dogs) – it did not succeed.
Back in 2007, when Russia was bidding to host the Winter Olympics, Putin reportedly vowed that, were Russia to win, he would be willing to spend $12 billion on the games – a figure that “dwarfed the bids of the other finalists from South Korea and Austria.” (Business Week, “The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s Winter Olympics,” 1.2.14) To date, Russia has invested $51 billion into the games, making these Olympics the most expensive in history – a clearly unnecessary expense, given that Winter Olympics typically require much less spending than Summer Olympics, which involves more athletes, events, and venues. Watching the build-up to the games, however, and knowing the amount of money that was being poured into these Olympics, I was only one of many asking themselves the same question: Why Sochi?
Assuming that Putin has aimed to use these Olympics as a chance to show the world that Russia is still a powerful, impressive actor on the world stage, the choice of Sochi as a host was an odd one. Sochi is an extremely underdeveloped city. It is also a known terror target that is on the “edge of a war zone”, according to the New York Times. (NY Times, “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone,” 2.5.14) Currently, Russian security forces are desperately searching for Ruzanna Ibragimova, a “black widow” who has allegedly infiltrated the security perimeter of the city and is planning a suicide attack on the games. As if this were not enough of a bad omen, violence against the LGBT community soared in the weeks leading up to the games (with reports of Russian authorities condoning, and even encouraging, homophobic violence), the hotels built in preparation for the influx of foreigners are falling apart, and the snow is Sochi is stained with the blood of its stray dogs.
Unfortunately, these issues are only the most superficial symptoms of the corruption that has plagued the preparation for these games since Russia won its bid. According to the Washington Post, “Somewhere along the line, according to Vladimir Putin’s critics, as much as $30 billion disappeared, and it didn’t go into the hotels, where the carpets look like scraps from an old office.” Many have speculated that this money was instead invested in surveillance, but it mainly seems to have gone into making the structures built for the Olympics needlessly towering and immense. According to Human Rights Watch, the village of Akhshtyr that lies along the highway to the Caucasus “has been plundered for its limestone by Olympic builders, leaving it with no drinkable water and some of its homes in collapse.” (Washington Post, “In Sochi, hotel complaints fall into chasm between global spectacle and under-served population,” 2.7.14)
Upon arriving in Sochi, journalists, tourists, and athletes alike have claimed the contrast between the poverty of the city and the opulence of the Olympic structures that now occupy it to be nauseating. Contractors and builders around Sochi have scrambled to propose new structures to be built in the city, any and all of which they claim to be “Olympic” in order to get funding for the job. According to Business Week, however, “no one has gotten more money from Sochi than brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, childhood friends of Putin’s from St. Petersburg who…received 21 contracts, according to the magazine, worth around $7 billion—more than the total cost of the Vancouver Olympics and around 14 percent of all spending for the Sochi Games.” (Business Week, “The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics,” 1.2.14)
When you delve deeper into the underlying reasons behind Putin’s decision to host the games in Sochi, it is clear they are far more insidious than the desire to strengthen the morale of the Caucasus and develop tourism in an area that served as a battlefield not long ago. With virtually no existing infrastructure in place to host the games, the Russians knew they would have to build everything from scratch; they also knew that the impoverished Caucasus region and its locals would demand neither money nor a significant role in preparing for the games, giving private developers and contractors hired by Putin virtually free reign as they consistently skirted zoning and building regulations and relentlessly asked for more and more money – much of which has gone unaccounted for.
The corruption would perhaps be easier to swallow were it not so blatantly set against a backdrop of poverty, violence, and human rights violations. But when you combine the fact that this is arguably the most corrupt Olympic games in history with the imminent threat of terrorism, the flagrant homophobia, the spying, the unlivable hotels, and the murder of innocent animals in the street, it is a wonder why more people did not call for a boycott to the games. Indeed, the most powerful message the United States could have sent to the Russian government would have been to boycott its greatest source of national pride since the end of the Cold War. Sadly, however, the U.S., and the world, has missed its chance.
—Natasha Bertrand ’14 is a political science and philosophy double major.