Friday, March 5, 2010

So Much For The Olympic Spirit

Before the 2010 Winter Games were even brought to a close, the host city’s hometown newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, took the opportunity to rip into the next host city of the 2014 Games, Sochi, Russia. Last Saturday the Sun ran this piece describing Sochi as bleak place whose Games are almost certainly to be wracked by terrorist-fueled violence. The Sun’s article is built solely on the assessment of Alina Inayeh, an analyst for the German Marshall Fund of the United States. According to Inayeh, the Sochi Games will be the first ever held in “a war zone region”, an area that she says is “home of the Chechen wars and violent feuding that surfaced after the breakup of the Soviet Union and continues to date,” and that the Games are sure to be a target of terrorists who are based nearby and “if you want to do a terrorist attack, the Olympic Games gives you the most attention you could possibly get.”

Okay, there are just a few problems with Inayeh’s Sochi rundown…

To start with Sochi would not be the first time the Olympics were held in a “war zone”, that distinction goes to the 1988 Summer Games of Seoul, South Korea, since North and South Korea only signed an armistice in 1953 to end the combat of the Korean War - the two sides have never signed a formal peace treaty, so technically the two nations still are at war. Second, while the Northern Caucasus region of Russia has been wracked by fighting, first from two wars in Chechnya and now by an insurgency in the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia, in 15 years none of that fighting has touched Sochi, so it’s hard to argue that Sochi itself is in a “conflict zone” (Sochi was similarly untouched by the August 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia which is just down the Black Sea coast from Sochi). And finally, while Inayeh is right that the Olympic Games do provide a high-profile target for would-be terrorists, it is striking that she skips ahead to Sochi and totally ignores the 2012 Summer Games in London as a prime terror target. Let’s remember that in 2005 London suffered the “7/7 attacks” of July 7th, where four British Muslims carried out a series of coordinated suicide bombings on London’s mass transit system killing 52 and wounding 700 others. It would seem if you want to make the Olympics-as-terror-target argument, you should start with the host city that actually has suffered from a mass terror attack first.

The week before the Vancouver Sun piece ran I had dinner with a friend who was born back in the old Soviet Union, since the Games were underway the Olympics came up in our discussion. She remarked that watching the American coverage of the Games she noticed a bias by the US sportscasters against Russian athletes in the various events, it was like the Cold War had never ended she said. After reading this screed from the Sun, it’s hard to argue against that point of view.

Speaking of Russia and the Olympics, there has been a swift reaction on the part of the Russian government over the Russian team’s worst-ever showing in a Winter Games; Russia finished sixth in the medal count and failed to win gold in two events where Russia traditionally dominates: ice skating and hockey. The head of Russia’s Olympic committee resigned on Thursday after more-or-less being ordered to by President Dmitry Medvedev. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Russia should have seen a better return on its investment in athletic training programs at the Games. He did admit though that the once-formidable Soviet-era system of athletic schools and training centers had largely collapsed and wondered aloud where the $117 million Russia spent on its Olympic athletes actually went. “Maybe the money we invested wasn't put where it should have been put, but somewhere else, where those who had it wanted it to go?” Putin said.

The answer seems to be into the pockets of the heads on Russia’s various sports federations as well as into some gaudy displays of self-promotion in Vancouver. According to Russia’s Vedomosti newspaper, Russia’s official delegation at the Vancouver Games included dozens “guests” that included actors, entertainers and politicians while Russia spent lavishly on building “Russia House”, a 10,000 sq ft temporary exhibition pavilion described as the most expensive of its kind ever at an Olympics. Meanwhile, Russian luger Albert Demchenko, who won silver at the 2006 Turin Games, had to take up a collection from his friends and family to repair his beaten up sled so he could even compete in Vancouver, his request before the Games to the Russian luging federation for a new sled had not been answered.
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