Russian Problems Remain Despite Revolutionized Games in Sochi

Pamela London

With an emphatic ceremony celebrating the past and the future, the XXII Olympic Winter Games came to a close. The flame was put out––by giant stuffed animals crying fake tears, no less––and now the eyes of the world turn to the next great sporting venture. The Olympic cycle will next stop in Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Games in 2016, a short turnaround for Brazilians as they host the FIFA World Cup this coming summer. In numerous ways, the 2014 Olympics were a success and revolutionized the Winter Games, both from a sporting and political standpoint. In countless other ways, however, questions remain not only about Sochi and its future but also about the Olympic system as a whole.

The novelty aspect of the 2014 Winter Olympics is not to be underestimated. These games marked the largest total budget of any previous Olympics at an estimated $51 billion spent on infrastructure, transportation and other costs, according to Business Week. Speaking of extremes, Sochi introduced 12 new medal events, many of which came from the Winter X Games and thus brought a new “extreme” element to the Olympics. Sochi also saw the warmest temperatures on records for a Winter Olympics: temperatures reached as high as 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the Olympic Village, which led to improvisation, to say the least, on the part of event organizers in the mountain cluster. And from a sporting standpoint, the games were a success in the home country’s eyes, since the Russian federation earned 33 medals in all, more than doubling its total from four years ago in Vancouver.

However, the political and cultural storylines are the key elements in this equation. Sure, Sochi pulled off two weeks of Olympic competition seemingly without a hitch. But it was what happened behind the scenes––in the buildup, the seven years of planning and preparation––that truly defines this Olympics, and frankly worries me as a fan of global sport for the years to come. After all, it was just a few months ago that Russians staged anti-gay rallies outside stadiums (to which the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion had a cheeky response). Now that the games are over, all that infrastructure that was created, all the roads that were built to bring people from all over the world to this small coastal city, all of that has to become something. Just because Sochi 2014 was successful in terms of holding an Olympics without any major disturbances––political or otherwise––during the games does not make the economic and political problems go away. This is a culture where people still suffer. Police violence is not out of the ordinary. Free speech is to an extent still restricted. President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay law from 2013 and the attacks by Cossacks on the Russian punk band Pussy Riot are just two examples.

This is not the end of global sport in Sochi. The city will host the XI Paralympic Winter Games starting March 7 and the Russian Formula I Grand Prix beginning this year and lasting until at least 2020. Russia will host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Sochi’s newly built Fisht Olympic Stadium is one of the scheduled venues. But what sort of precedent does it set that a nation so fraught with political issues was awarded the opportunity to host an Olympic Games? Russia is tied to numerous surrounding nations, whose problems are thus compounded with Russia’s. There’s no turning away from the spotlight that hosting an Olympics puts on you. The Olympics did not solve Russia’s problems; the question is now, is Russia willing to try?