The Sochi winter games will soon open and whether by choice or sheer over powering much of the world’s attention will be directed to Russia. Although the opening ceremony and most of the athletic events will be carefully choreographed to display pageantry and the triumph of internationalism over politics, it is worth considering what the games are likely to cost us.
The formal price of Sochi has now been estimated at $50 billion. A figure far in excess of anyone’s imagination at that time that the Olympic Committee awarded the games to Russia. In theory the money has gone into transforming a relatively quaint resort into an international sports mecca. In practice most of the money, like much Russian wealth before it, has gone to line the pockets of oligarchs. Still, if the theft of Russian resources were the only cost of these games one could perhaps overlook it. Unfortunately, the games are likely to be costly in at least three more dimensions.
The first is in the integrity of the games themselves. Parading at Sochi requires deception on many levels; in pretending that shoddy infrastructure is first rate, in pretending that the imposition of a police state mentality is routine security, in pretending that the personal pursuit of an authoritarian ruler of a dying country represents the collective celebration of a rising nation, and perhaps most of all in pretending that the Olympic games themselves bear no responsibility for the tremendous financial waste and political repression that have accompanied them.
The second area of cost is likely to be the personal security of the athletes and spectators at the games. By voluntarily deciding to award the games to Russia, the Olympic Committee inserted itself into a political climate built on repression and violence. It is virtually certain that groups will try to disrupt the games with violence. It is very possible that they will succeed. Security can move the barrier surrounding the games far from the arenas where they actually occur but only at a cost to the games themselves. Moreover, it cannot erase it completely. An attack at the barrier is an attack on the games and an attack on the games will affect them profoundly even if it does not disrupt the schedule.
Finally, the integrity of the events themselves is likely to suffer. This is Russia after all. Every Olympics has had its share of judging controversies but the Moscow games perhaps set the pace. The nature of hosting, especially in Russia means that the events are not totally under the control of the Olympic Committee. Having done so poorly in the last games and spent so much on Sochi, Putin’s government is unlikely to lose gracefully.
The lesson is that international sports bodies cannot be excused from taking responsibility for the decisions they make. There is an obligation to the athletes and fans to chose venues that are adequate and safe. But there is also an obligation to refrain from lending the credibility of major sports events to corrupt and incompetent governments whether they be in Russia, Bahrain, or Brazil. If these bodies want politics to stop while the games go on, they will have to wait until the poor are no longer hungry and the dissidents are no longer in jail.