Sochi – ten awkward questions

Is this the right environment for the Olympic Games?

Is this the right environment for the Olympic Games?

No, do not worry; you have not missed out on any late-breaking news. Handball is not being moved to the Winter Olympics. But I figured that, as sports fans, you are still taking some interest in what will happen in Sochi, where events will get underway a month from now. Perhaps you will follow the overall medal count, or you may wonder if USA or Canada will have a chance to take the icehockey gold medals away from Russia? (The right answer is of course that Sweden will beat them all in icehockey…!)

Personally I had to get up to speed quickly on issues related to Sochi a couple of months ago, when I was suddenly ‘asked’ to take on the task of introducing the topic of Sochi and chairing a panel debate, during the Play the Game conference in Denmark. This meant getting ready to manage a dialog on topics such as the following. Please be forewarned, I will basically leave it up to you to answer the questions!

Was it right that Russia got the Winter Olympics? Most people recognize that Russia has the capacity and is a country with great traditions in winter sports. But we know that the host country gets a great chance to ‘make propaganda’. And it does seem a bit awkward that these days we see mostly countries run by dictators, oligarchs and oil sheikhs in contentions as hosts. On the other hand, who is really in a position to disqualify others, and what potential hosts would be left if we applied very tough criteria?

But why did they choose Sochi as the site? Unless you can read the mind of President Putin, you may not find a clear answer. The fact that Stalin once had a ‘dacha’ here cannot be the only reason. Sochi is one of the least winter-like sites in the entire country, and it seems that better alternatives would exist. But if propaganda is a factor, then one can see why Putin would feel that Sochi offers a comfortable and attractive setting that should impress the visitors and the TV viewers. And there is no risk for frost-bite!

Can we expect that the venues for the competitions will be first-rate? This is probably one of the most positive aspects. Assuming that buildings do not collapse due to shoddy construction, everything will be brand new and intended to meet the highest standards. The competition sites are split into two clusters, not far from each other, so transportation should not be a problem either. The Athletes Village seems to have passed inspection with flying colors.

Did Sochi really have the infrastructure to make it an easy site? Here the answer is clear. Essentially everything has had to be built and provided from scratch, such as roads, railways, airports, power supply, technological capacity, hotels and other facilities for the tourists. Normally, this would be a big negative for a candidate, as the IOC is generally quite concerned about such huge expenditure and the risk that things will not be finished on time.

Does this not set the stage for major cost over-runs and corruption? These tend to be problem areas for most Olympic hosts, but in Russia it has been much worse than ever. Part of it is the normal level of corruption in the country. But we have the added issue that it is a huge matter of prestige for Putin to finish all projects on time, when everything had to be built. He will not care that the cost overrun is 500% and that half of the money goes into the pockets of people, as long as it is ready by February 6.

What about reports of mistreatment of the workers? It is hard to know if things are worse than elsewhere in Russia, or in Qatar for the World Cup, as human rights observers have not had much access. The conditions look fine on paper, but if wages are not paid, if the hours are doubled to meet deadlines, if safety measures are non-existent, and proper health care and insurances are lacking, then reports of ‘slave labor’ may not be exaggerated. It is the principle that ‘the end justifies the means’.

What about security concerns? The good news is that Russia has vast expertise and resources for both heavy-handed and sophisticated efforts. But the bad news is that different ethnic groups and terrorist outfits are beginning to show their intentions to use the Olympics as a target or at least an occasion. It is awkward to know that Sochi is situated not far from known danger zones in the North Caucasus, but it may be of some consolation that the Sochi area might be relatively easy to isolate and protect. There is security zone of 1500 square miles, where nobody without credentials gets in.

Can one believe that freedom of the press will exist? This is of course in issue in Russia also in normal circumstances, both for Russian media and for foreigners. At my conference, a key Russian participant was from RIA Novosti, the main Russian news agency. But this agency no longer exists. It has been replaced by what looks like a propaganda machine. And it is feared that foreign media will be carefully monitored and restricted beyond a very narrow reporting from the sports events.

—So what about the atmosphere for the athletes and the spectators? It is likely that the legitimate security concerns will become an excuse for managing both athletes and spectators very carefully. The Russians will try to make the security presence less obvious, but monitoring of communications and movements is expected to be part of the picture. I have experienced tough security measures at several Olympic Games, but not to the extent that it has had a negative effect on the atmosphere and the Olympic camaraderie. Here one can have serious doubts, but we will just have to wait and see.

Will the issue of the new, strict anti-gay laws in Russia have a major impact? Clearly, the IOC has handled this issue very poorly. Russian reassurances have just been taken at face value, and the IOC had claimed that there is no breach of the Olympic Charter. Much will depend on whether any groups or individuals will endeavor to use the event for explicit demonstrations in one direction or the other, well beyond the U.S. gesture of including prominent gay and lesbian ex-athletes in the official delegation. One would think that, after all the attention the issue has had, the Russian authorities will go out of their way to avoid provocations, but the issue has become so full of prestige that it is hard to know.