Russia’s first ever hosted winter Olympics has come under a range of scrutiny that has elements of validity and hypocrisy. The last point concerns the debatably utilized ”whataboutism” term.
Hosting an Olympiad inevitably leads to questioning whether that process is feasibly prudent. On this issue, the 1976 Montreal summer Olympics stands out as a prime negative example. Yet, these games continue on, in what remains the most popular sports festival in the world. Out of practicality, it is imperative for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the locales bidding to host the Olympics to carefully study the past to better avoid financial disaster and see a worthy host benefit, as a result of hosting the Olympics. Montreal’s Olympic financial problems did not stop two other Canadian cities from applying for and winning the 1988 and 2010 winter Olympic bids. The success of the 1988 Calgary winter Olympics motivated Vancouver to host the event in 2010.
There is an idealistic side to the Olympics, which is not all bad. Human nature includes a pleasurable aspect, that does not always serve as a profit motive. Parks and recreational facilities have operated at losses, while serving the health and welfare of the community. Whether in person or on television, many individuals like to watch sporting events on a fairly regular basis. Imagine a world where everyone just worked long hours, with only enough time leftover to sleep and eat. It is of course very regretful that many people throughout the world are not in a good position to engage in recreational activity and view world class sporting events. The Olympic movement has seen a greater range of nations winning medals, as the athletic programs in many countries have improved.
As has been true with other countries which have hosted the Olympics, national pride is one factor behind the Russian desire to host the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi. Post-Soviet Russia survived the considerable socioeconomic turbulence it faced in the 1990s. When compared to other nations, Russia has fared relatively well during the global recession.
In recent years, Russia’s winter Olympic performance has taken a step back. Russia has a great sporting tradition. Hosting an Olympiad can serve to help bolster the performance of the host nation’s Olympic team. The 1988 Calgary winter Olympics is credited with nurturing a gradual improvement in Canada’s tally of medals in subsequent winter Olympics.
The goal is to see Sochi enhance its standing as a resort for the public and training center for Russia’s best athletes. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that improved sports structures should be undergone for the purpose of improving the overall health of Russia’s population. This advocacy has been followed up on with the approval of a greater anti-smoking law by Russia’s Duma (parliament).
Some negative obstacles facing the Sochi Olympics appear likely to be resolved. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of Georgia’s newly elected government, advocates a reversal of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili’s preference for a boycott of the Sochi winter Olympics. The National Hockey League seems like it is leaning towards an agreement, which will formally allow the players in its league to play for their respective national Olympic teams in Sochi.
Unlike some other parts of the Caucasus, the Sochi area has not experienced terrorism. There will be a high level security presence when Sochi hosts the winter Olympics.
Unless something really dramatic happens, the call for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympics is not likely to muster any significant clout. The IOC is not fond of the past Olympic boycotts, with the summer Olympic boycotts of 1976, 1980 and 1984 being the most notable. Among human rights organizations, the Chinese government has come under criticism. The 2008 Beijing summer Olympics was not boycotted, in a city known for having problems with air quality. (With a recorded 2011 population of well under a half million, Brunei was the only IOC member country which did not participate in the Beijing Olympics. Brunei’s non-participation was apparently due to lacking athletes, able to meet the Olympic qualifying requirements for competition.)
The Sochi winter Olympic costs will be the most expensive of all prior Olympiads. Before winning the bid to host the 2014 winter Olympics, Sochi’s infrastructure was known to lack the modern amenities of a top rated resort and world class athletic center. Consideration has been given to this particular, when assessing the Sochi winter Olympic costs. Time will tell on the ramifications of this undertaking, along with perhaps adding greater insight on the corruption claim. (UPDATE – About the time of this article’s release RT ran a piece on a Russian government investigation and report, concerning the inflated Sochi Olympic construction costs. Olympstroy Company is accused of a tremendous padding of costs. In the long run, the Sochi winter Olympics might arguably serve as a good learning curve for Russia’s developmental process.)
Another factor might explain why the corruption element is not the only cause to consider for the building of Sochi’s infrastructure to have significantly risen from what was originally anticipated. Excluding Sochi, Russia, one has to go back awhile to find a nation in its first time role as a winter Olympic host. (The subject of skyrocketed building costs brings to mind the 1970s renovation of Yankee Stadium. This situation marked the first time that a prominent baseball stadium had undergone a massive renovation, which entailed the architecturally delicate task of knocking down a good portion of a structure, followed by building around the leftover components. No Major League Baseball playing facility has since attempted this kind of a renovation – instead, opting to either build completely new from the ground up, or in the case of Boston’s Fenway Park, undergo a renovation, that is comparatively limited from Yankee Stadium’s.)
Modernity brings about the challenge of upgrades in as cost effective and environmentally safe a way as possible, while limiting the inconvenience of the population. With a pessimistic slant, a March 11, 2010 Al Jazeera piece concentrates on the environmental issue in Sochi. Some more recent commentary raises concern over the Sochi winter Olympic preparations reducing trees, in addition to increasing a greater chance for mudslides and water pollution. The future will undoubtedly provide a better confirmation on the full extent of the environmental damage claim.
A more upbeat view notes that despite significant changes, much of Sochi’s environment will nevertheless remain unchanged, in a way which ideally seeks to best preserve human nature, with an increased human presence. Nobody seems to favor Sochi becoming anything close to a vast toxic and treeless waste dump. That occurrence would decrease its appeal as a resort. (I am reminded of the tree cutting campaign undergone over the years in a wooded area near me. The cut down trees made room for athletic fields, pedestrian trails, parking lots and picnic areas. As a part state and part local village affiliated park, this locale has seen an increase in public use, without eliminating its still very noticeable wooded and wildlife appeal. At one time, the outlying area of this park was very wooded, before towns with homes and business centers sprung up, with an increased population. This development decreased wildlife and ended some natural water streams with fish.)
An Al Jazeera news segment of this past February 7, gives a negative portrayal of the preparation for the Sochi winter Olympics. Without specifics, the stated concerns over corruption of construction fees and environmental damage were presented. The categorized issue of forced evictions was highlighted in this report.
One disgruntled evictee is featured, without providing any follow-up from the perspective of those involved with preparing Sochi for the winter Olympics and the area’s future thereafter. A photo said to be the bloodied back of that evictee’s head is shown, with the claim of the injury being caused by law enforcement authorities. In the United States, there is an understanding of two extremes on matters having to do with law enforcement officials either going beyond the realm of reasoned force, versus the instance of providing reasonable force after being attacked. The featured evictee apparently felt free enough to show himself on Al Jazeera, with his name given.
Not known for being pro-Russian government, The Moscow Times ran an October 31, 2012 news report, which gave a view omitted from Al Jazeera’s February 7 segment. In that Moscow Times piece, Krasnodar Deputy Governor Alexander Saurin is quoted as saying that the government has spent 9.5 billion rubles ($302 million) to resettle 3,000 people. Saurin added that 20% of those being resettled did not have the appropriate documentation to qualify for the resettlement program – a matter which likely involves (at least in good measure) a squatter status, other challenges pertaining to who is actually legal holder of the land being taken and bureaucratic misunderstanding (possibly existing between some resettlement applicants and those reviewing their claims). The aforementioned Moscow Times report references Saurin stating that the authorities have provided 482 homes and 518 apartments for the resettled, with a good portion (2/3) preferring to accept money. (My thanks to the commenter Kirill at Mark Chapman’s blog The Kremlin Stooge, who brought The Moscow Times report to my attention.)
With some ethical reservations, eminent domain has been a worldwide accepted procedure. Robert Moses‘ mixed legacy includes his implemented development plans for New York City and some nearby areas, which involved the sudden uprooting of communities, with elements who opposed this change. The matter of forced evictions was reported on in relation to the preparation of prior Olympics, including the last two summer Olympics held in Beijing (2008) and London (2012), among others. In comparison to the initial reports of Olympic related evictions, the reporting on the aftermath conditions of the evicted does not seem to be followed up on as well.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has praised the preparations undergone in Sochi for the 2014 winter Olympics. There have nevertheless been some officially acknowledged hitches that should be worked out by the start of the Olympiad.
The Economist came out with a negative February 6 piece on Sochi’s hosting of the 2014 winter Olympics. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the conditions faced by migrant workers is noted in that commentary. While not completely dismissing the claim of some employer mistreatment of employees (migrants and otherwise), Russia’s Federal Migration Service said the HRW report inaccurately portrays the overall experience of workers who are building Sochi’s infrastructure. (Concerning another report, HRW’s 2013 report on Russia has been criticized for being negatively inaccurate.) For its own interests, the Russian winter Olympic organizers should effectively deal with any wrongdoing to their project and be public relations savvy, when it comes to addressing claims against the Sochi construction effort.
In a partisan way, the past has been brought up in a manner that essentially casts a negative image of Sochi as an Olympic host. This matter concerns some Circassians, whose ancestors had resided in the Sochi area. The Circassians (a categorized group of some of the peoples with roots in the Caucasus) became part of a 19th century war in the Caucasus between the Russian Empire and a good number of the region’s inhabitants. At the end of this war, many of the Circassians who opposed the Russian Empire resettled in the Ottoman Empire.
The claim that this process involved enforcement by the Russian authorities is not unfounded. In varying degrees, this kind of situation existed in some earlier conflicts, including what pro-British Loyalists experienced, relative to the American Revolution. More recently, the 20th century included non-Russian instances of violent war related ethnic demographic changes in Europe, Asia and Africa.
Some Circassians stayed in the Russian Empire until its end as loyal subjects. Circassians served as border patrol guards of the Russian Empire. During the Russian Civil War, some Circassians fought on the side of the Whites. Throughout the years of Soviet era exile, Circassians attended White Russian events and vice versa. Following the Russian Civil War, other Circassians lived in the Soviet Union.
In what can be seen as a contentious stance, Saakashvili has favored a formal recognition of the “Circassian genocide”. As presented, this stance downplays Georgia’s 19th century association with the Russian Empire in opposing Ottoman Turkey and its allies in the Caucasus. At last notice, Saakashvili has not formally recognized what happened to the Armenians in Turkish administered territory as a genocide.
Within reason and without meaning to disrespectfully diminish past sufferings with insensitive quibbling, there is a basis to question some of the claims concerning the 19th century Circassian experience, which is not so well known in the West. In 1990s Bosnia, trumped up fatality and rape claims suited the agenda for seeking a foreign military action, that helped to benefit the side which was militarily losing. Conversely, a statistic having to do with a subject like war related fatalities can be downplayed from reality for an agendacratic (if you may) reason. For accuracy sake, this topic should be studied in as complete and objective a manner as possible.
There are anti-Russian elements out there (partly having to do with Russia’s historic big power status, periodically coming in conflict with some others), which actively seek negative talking points against Russia. In the West (with the United States particularly in mind), there is no influential pro-Russian lobby, in contrast to the leading ethnic lobbying groups.
Some of the more objective consumers of news stories can get subconsciously duped on subjects that they are not so well versed on. This scenario happens when a given news story is tilted in one direction. That said, Russia should not be exempt of any criticism. As has been true in the relationships between other great powers and the world at large, Russia’s relations have been a mix of confrontation and cooperation. In some circles, the latter situation seems to get deemphasized, which (in turn) explains a good deal.
Regarding the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics, little if any mention has been made of what happened to the Cherokee Nation, in what is now a part of the American state of Georgia. One can dwell on the past relationship that Indians had on other North American territories which have hosted the Olympics. The less sympathetic of American Indian observers are prone to highlight examples of American Indian atrocities. That dynamic did not appear to exist in the dispute between the Cherokee Nation and the American state of Georgia.
The disputes in the Caucasus have not been an exclusively simple good versus evil situation. Going back to the period of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, the Russian Empire faced the specter of hostile activity along its southern flank. The Caucasus developed a similar pattern, inclusive of some people from that region allying themselves with the Russian Empire.
The 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics were a generally well appreciated Olympiad, which did not dwell on such matters as the Spanish Inquisition, Spanish Civil War, Franco’s dictatorship and Basque and Catalan qualms. Coming out of its past, post-Soviet Russia has made positive strides, in an imperfect way, that continues on, as opposed to being etched in stone. One hopes for a successful 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, with political asides deemphasized.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.