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Why did the Sochi Olympics draw so much criticism?

Was Russia unfairly criticised compared to other Olympic hosts?

Last updated: 22 Feb 2014 13:13
Safiah Chowdhury

Safiah Chowdhury is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and originally from Toronto, Canada.
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Other Olympic Games have also had high security price tags, writes the author [Getty Images]

In Sochi, the XXII Olympic Winter Games are drawing to a close. As competitors from eighty-eight countries demonstrated their immense athleticism and people from around the world shared in the excitement, joy, and upsets, there loomed a heavy cloud of controversy over Russia. With a plenitude of critiques, these Games are mired in politics seemingly unique to the 2014 hosts. However, this supposed aberration is possible only with the political quietness of past Olympics.

Unquestionably, the critiques leveraged against Russia are valid. There is little excuse for such an  exorbitant price tag for the Games, the many missing amenities in the Olympic village, and of course, Russia's homophobic laws. Add to that the reports of vast corruption, displacement of locals, the destruction of protected land, and the security threats. Although Putin has been hoping these Games will raise the profile of Russia, he has found himself under increased scrutiny.

Such scrutiny is undeniably important. To ignore the larger context and problems that underlie hosting the Olympic Games is to do a disservice to the integrity of news and all those affected outside the sporting world. After all, it is simply impossible for an event of such magnitude to occur without corresponding questions of priorities, disregard of locals, and overall controversy. While it is crucial this be exposed in the Sochi Games, it begs the question of where such criticisms were during previous Olympic Games.

The Olympics and the abuse of minorities

Take the last Winter Olympic Games, for instance. Occurring in the relatively unassuming country of Canada, all mainstream critique focused on logistical errors. Dubbed by some as potentially "the worst in Olympic history", the Vancouver 2010 Games were primarily criticised for the mass refunding of tickets, the lack of snow, the security surrounding the Olympic flame, and of course, the tragic death of the Georgian luger.

The political problems facing Russia far outweigh the organisational problems faced in Vancouver; yet to pretend the biggest problems with the Vancouver Games related only to poor logistics is to ignore Canada's own sordid history of displacement and human rights abuses.

Al Jazeera World - Winter of Discontent

Leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Games and throughout its duration, various indigenous groups and allies protested against the Games because they were held on what they deemed "stolen" land. Most of British Columbia is unceded Native territory due in large part to the absence of treaties.

As such, according to both Canadian and international law, British Columbia exists as an illegal occupation. The 2010 Olympic Games transpired on this territory to the objection of thousands outraged by the further theft and disregard of land and indigenous rights. While it is generally par for the course that indigenous claims in North America are disregarded or ignored by the mainstream, it is interesting to follow the coverage of similar claims in Sochi.

The indigenous peoples of Sochi, the Ubykhs, and the larger Circassian group to which they belong, are subject to oppressive and dismissive policies by the Russian government. In fact, the Sochi Games are being held on the site of the largest Circassian massacre, whose 150th anniversary occurs simultaneous to these Olympic Games. Also a subject of protest, those asking for Circassian recognition are ignored at home yet they have managed to capture some attention from Western news outlets.  It is encouraging to see major news outlets, including the American Olympic broadcaster, cover this issue.

However, in the case of the Vancouver Games, the only mention of indigenous peoples was praising the organising committee for the token inclusion of indigenous cultures into the ceremony. Any mention of massacre, ongoing rights violations, or the lack of sovereignty for Canada's indigenous peoples never made it into the mainstream. For Russia however, there seems to be a greater appetite for such critique.

Anti-gay laws only in Russia?

This appetite was also present in the criticisms of Russia over its laws forbidding the promotion of homosexuality to minors. While obviously a problematic law, it is interesting to observe its global protest. From governments flying rainbow-coloured flags to Google's own commemorative logo, there seems to be widespread agreement that such a law is unacceptable. US President Barack Obama stated that he has "no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them" in reference to Russia's law against the promotion of homosexuality.

This is despite the fact that the US itself has eight states that have laws strikingly similar to Russia’s. These laws have provisions informally called the "no homo promo" which ban advocating or normalising homosexuality. Utah, the hosts of the 2002 Olympic Games, is one such state. Other states, such as Texas and Alabama, go further than Russia in mandating that children be taught that homosexuality is a criminal act despite the unconstitutionality of such sentiment.

US rights groups urge Russia Olympics boycott

In fact, 14 US states still have official "anti-sodomy laws" irrespective of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling striking them down. Such provisions arguably go further than Russia’s, which have not officially banned homosexuality. While neither Russia nor the US ought to be excused for sanctioning homophobia, there is a clear double standard when it comes to international criticism.  

Cold War sentiments?

It is a curious phenomenon that the Sochi games have been politicised much more than other Olympic Games. With a heavy price tag and corporate sponsorships, all Olympics - irrespective of the host - are political in nature. Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the critiques against the Sochi Games, saying they are a result of Cold War sentiment. While Putin is notorious for his sidestepping of issues, nonchalance towards international conventions, and overall dictatorial nature, on this he may have a point.

The jump to construct Russia as unusually dismissive of human rights is telling, perhaps, of a larger narrative. After all, this harkening back to the Cold War days is clearly manifested in the critiques of the Opening Ceremonies and even in discussions about hockey rivalries. Furthermore, the West has always enjoyed leeway in its violations or undemocratic practices because it is self-perceived as more democratic. Thus, the high security costs in Sochi are less forgivable than the almost $1bn spent on security in Vancouver; the displacement of families for Sochi 2014 is less forgivable than the displacement of families living in social housing for the London 2012 Games.

Russia deserves to be critiqued. It is undeniable that its abuse of human and civil rights is generally much more perilous than in other recent host countries (with, perhaps, the exception of Beijing 2008). There is no excuse for the erasure of ethnic cleansing or the existence of homophobic laws. However, if such criticisms are truly informed by our sense of moral outrage instead of political opportunism, one wonders why the Sochi Games seem exceptionally political and unique in this regard.

Safiah Chowdhury is a graduate student at the University of Oxford and originally from Toronto, Canada.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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