The 2014 Winter Olympics contained many warm fuzzy moments for Canadians: the Dufour-Lapointe sisters topping the women’s moguls’ podium, speedskater Gilmore Junio giving his spot to a teammate who went on to win silver, repeat gold medals for men’s and women’s hockey teams. But these glittering moments are powerful distractions, clouding issues from the Games. Before Sochi’s Olympics fade into a shiny memory, let’s round up some of the darker issues:
1. Check your human rights at the door: The Olympic Charter says Olympism promotes “a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” — the IOC must’ve been looking for an extra challenge this year. Even before the country’s anti-gay propaganda law passed, Putin’s Russia was hardly a bastion of peace and human dignity.
Threats to gay rights topped a laundry list of pre-Games abuses. Thousands of migrant construction workers faced unpaid wages and exploitation by employers and deportation by an increasingly hostile government. Russian families were evicted through opaque, often unjust, eminent domain processes.
Activists were continually harassed. Environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko was arrested for swearing at a bus stop. Two Pussy Riot members released from prison in December — in apparent lip-service to rights concerns — were then re-arrested in Sochi on absurd allegations of theft. The next day, they and other group members were whipped by uniformed Cossacks while filming a music video.
2. The sound of silence: Leading up to Sochi, there was hope for activism during the Games. Despite the IOC’s insistence that “the Games cannot be used as a stage for political demonstrations,” it seemed possible a modern-day Tommie Smith or John Carlos might raise a rainbow-powered fist on the podium. The closest approximation was out Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas’ flash of rainbow mitten after a qualifying run. Maas might have done more from the podium, but she came eighth, so we’ll never know.
Other than criticizing Putin in response to reporters’ questions, athletes stayed silent.
Outside the Games, designated “protest zones” remained mostly empty, and — with the exception of Pussy Riot’s visit — protest beyond the zones was all but non-existent. Despite not facing the same risks as individual protesters, powerful organizations also failed to take a stand. Of corporate sponsors, only AT&T made an explicit statement condemning the anti-gay legislation. President Obama subtly protested by sending a delegation of prominent gay athletes, but opted out of outright condemnation.
Ukrainian skier Bogdana Matsotska did want to use the Games to draw attention to protesters killed in Kiev, but withdrew from her final event, claiming the IOC turned down her team’s request to compete wearing black armbands.
Canadian cities decided to fly the rainbow-coloured gay pride flag for the duration of the Games in solidarity with LGBTQ communities in Russia, with a few cities being a touch more vocal about Russia’s homophobia laws.
3. It’s not easy being green: Particularly if you’re converting a tiny subtropical resort into a winter sports destination for 250,000 spectators, journalists, athletes and dignitaries. Environmental offences committed in the name of these Olympics include (but aren’t limited to):
– endangering drinking water by illegally dumping construction waste throughout the Mzymta River’s watershed, and building a road and railway along its banks
– paving over wetland bird habitats to build venues
– deforestation and highway construction through Sochi National Park (part of a World Heritage Site)
– the draining of a village’s wells by neighbouring quarries
– massive carbon emissions — 520,000 metric tons, vs. London 2012’s 311,000 — generated in part by the effort to create winter sport conditions in the warmest place in Russia
So much for the Olympic goal of encouraging “a responsible concern for environmental issues.”
4. The gravy railway: Russia’s Olympic bid projected a budget of $12 billion. The final cost came in at an estimated $51 billion, by far the most expensive Games ever. Instead of paying workers or preventing the fiascoes that gave rise to the #SochiProblems meme, that money is lining the pockets of President Putin’s cronies. Forget the medalists, it’s the embezzlers who really took home the gold.
5. Dog days are over: After pledging to deal humanely with thousands of stray dogs and cats, the Sochi government quietly hired a private company to “dispose of” the animals.
6. A whiter shade of Games: These Olympics featured competitors from 88 countries, more than any previous Winter Games. Still, the athlete parades resembled, in the words of Mike Wise, “the inside of a giant snow globe, forever powdery white.” Winter’s Olympics skew whiter than summer’s for many reasons, including the high price tag of winter sports — making them inaccessible to many minorities in western countries — and the fact wintrier places tend to have whiter populations.
Making cold-weather sports accessible to all kids in northern countries is certainly part of the solution. But if the goal is to spread understanding by exposing athletes and spectators to as many peoples as possible, there’s a quicker way to boost diversity. The Winter Olympics needn’t exclusively feature cold-weather competitions. The Summer Games include a dozen indoor sports typically practiced in winter. Shift a handful of other sports, like basketball, to the Winter Games, and diversity will skyrocket. Based on 2012 qualification, judo alone would add over 50 countries to the winter lineup, smashing that giant snow globe for good.
7. Compete at your own risk: Athletes injure themselves in international competition, but the risk normally lies in the athlete’s performance, not the venue. Not so in Sochi, where the slushy snow — thanks, subtropical climate! — has resulted in a broken spine, broken jaw and numerous head injuries. The argument that dissenters should put aside political concerns and support the athletes living out their dreams rang awfully hollow as the Games themselves put those dreams, and lives, at risk.
Jessie Johnston’s work in publishing has ranged from starting the National Geographic Society’s first blog to selling ads for Geist magazine. In between, she ran a website for the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. She is currently freelancing as a writer and editor, waiting for Wired magazine to offer her the job of editor-in-chief.
Photo: flickr/Atos International