The first governing principles of the Olympic Charter reads as follows: ‘Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’ With the first week of the Sochi Winter Olympic competition completed and dozens of medals already awarded, the world, sadly, has shown itself to be falling well short of the Olympic dream. For those more interested in legal inequality and privileged rhetoric than ice hockey and snowboard half-pipe, or even for those who love expanding their knowledge of both, critiques of the Sochi Olympic Games have proven narrow-minded and imbalanced to say the very least.
Among the most troubling concerns is the popular trend regarding the criticisms of the provisions within the Olympic Village. While seeing an reporter’s tweet about a bee stuck in a honey package or an athlete’s Instagram of a random framed photograph of Putin amidst a room still under construction may produce a smirk or a chuckle, these pithy samples of life in Sochi in many cases reveal a problematic response to poverty and an obliviously privileged attitude from foreign visitors. While it is true that when Russia announced its bid to host the Olympics in 2007 it inherently made a commitment to provide ample and decent housing for all athletes, coaches, judges and reporters, the fact remains that these living situations took place despite the largest Olympic-motivated spending in history. According to Business Week, the Sochi Winter Olympics cost Russia $51 billion. (‘The Waste and Corruption of Vladmir Putin’s 2014 Olympics,’ 01.02.2014) The planning committee devoted $6 billion to costs directly associated with the competition, and the rest was used to improve Sochi’s infrastructure. With roughly $45 billion spent to prepare Sochi for foreigners who they predicted would be both athletes and judges, problems with plumbing, dining and safety still existed and yet no one in the media has voiced any questions as to why.
That lack of questioning and the media’s willingness to simply chuckle at Russia illuminates a problematic response in the Western media. No one is considering that if water in the Olympic Village is brown, that this may be a problem that has plagued the city of Sochi for years, which would mean that its inhabitants have been struggling with the reality of contaminated water. In spite of years of preparation, billions of dollars devoted entirely to improvements in infrastructure, and the knowledge that the world would be watching and judging Russia based on its provisions, this is the quality of life Sochi is able to provide. Moreover, multiple photographs have surfaced of women sweeping the streets of Sochi and the paths to hotels with twigs, broken brooms, and cardboard dustpans; the subsequent text is bemused at the apparent shortage of proper brooms or dustpans in Sochi.
Athletes and reporters alike have also used social media to mock food quality in Sochi, posting photos of a bee suspended in honey or complaining that the lunch line features ‘tinned peas and marmalade.’ Instead of seeing this as a funny anecdote for Westerners to talk about how Russia could not even provide athletes with drinkable water or ‘edible’ food, people should be considering the real and daily struggles of residents to be healthy under these conditions.
Poverty and health hazards are not something Western athletes or reporters should feel proud of ‘surviving’ for a few weeks and then mock online. We as readers, supporters of Olympic teams, and even as citizens of nations that these athletes profess to represent should be critical of the narrow-mindedness of these reports and require that our sources consider and question larger issues of poverty and health risks above cheap jokes.
Another factor to consider when considering critiques of reading reporters’ and athletes’ conditions should be the almost entirely unreported issue of displacement that comes with each Olympic games. As has been customary in all modern Olympic Games, in preparation for the construction of the Olympic Village, hundreds of Sochi residents were forced to relocate, sometimes without adequate compensation. According to The Los Angeles Times, ‘Legislation known as Law 301 allowed the seizure and demolition of privately owned plots of land and buildings in preparation for the Games.’ (‘Sochi Winter Olympic Games at root of residents’ housing woes,’ 02.06.2014) While the Russian government maintains that it adequately compensated all those forced to relocate due to the Olympic Games, many Sochi residents claim that the payment they received left them unable to afford quality housing. Other residents accuse the government of sending masked and armed policemen to escort them off of their property without any promise of compensation. Society should not ignore the experiences of terror some Sochi residents felt when being forcibly removed from their homes or diminish the life-altering reality that, in order for us to enjoy these sports on television, hundreds of people have potentially lost their family homes permanently without the hope of affording another. We as viewers must demand better from organizers and not let the promise of a beautiful aerial blind us from reading about the detrimental byproducts of the business of the Olympics.
Much has also been made of the host country’s legal and rhetorical stance on the treatment of members of the LGBTQ community, but, sadly, many of the most outspoken critics of Russia’s policy on issues of discrimination based on sexual or gender identity fail to acknowledge this as a more endemic problem. While violence and legal penalties have dramatically increased in the recent years in Russia, and while serving as the host nation inherently endows a nation with an added level of media scrutiny, Russia is by no means the only (or even the most recent) one to promote anti-homosexual laws. With 3 competitors in this Olympics, Uzbekistan still has laws that criminalize homosexual male relationships with 3 years imprisonment, as well as what the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard University characterizes as consistent abuse by law enforcement officials and suppression of LGBTQ-focused non-profit organizations. (‘The Violations of the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons in UZBEKISTAN: A Shadow Report,’ March 2010) According to the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission case study on China, Chinese laws have also continually rejected legislation permitting same-sex marriage or civil unions. Laws also require that any couple seeking to adopt a child from China must be heterosexual. Moreover, the organization believes members of the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender individuals, face violent harassment by police and civilians alike. Instead of limiting criticisms of homophobic discrimination to Russia alone, people should recognize and, if they feel so inclined, attempt to advocate for reform in all of those nations that criminalize same-sex relationships or leave members of the LGBTQ community at physical risk.
As an event intended to unite the global community and foster a mutual understanding and a cultural exchange, the Olympics promotes an ideal that most people desire. However, it is the West’s response to Sochi, so filled with narrow-minded criticisms and so lacking in compassionate attempts at improvement, that shows that no matter how many gold medals we win, we are all losing in Sochi.