Russia slammed for winter Olympics chaos

Putin’s gamble: Will Sochi win over the West? © PA

The 2014 winter Olympics kicks off today in the Russian city of Sochi. But the run up to the games has been marred by scandal, human rights protests, and chaos. Can Putin pull it off?

‘Russia,’ declared a defiant President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, ‘is ready to host the games.’ Despite stray dog culls, toothpaste terrorism threats, and gay rights protesters up in arms, the 2014 winter Olympics is finally here. World leaders, thousands of athletes and spectators, and the eyes of the world’s media are ready for Russia’s sporting spectacular.

But is Russia ready for them?

The most expensive Olympics begin today in the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi. There will be 98 gold medals won over 16 days of competition, with 2,871 athletes from 87 National Olympic Committees competing, seven of which – Dominica, Zimbabwe, Malta, Paraguay, Togo, Tonga and East Timor – are entering for the first time.

But scandal after scandal has paved the icy slopes to Sochi, causing derision in the West. From reports of journalists finding exhausted builders sleeping in their beds, to outrage over Sochi’s decision to carry out a mass cull of the city’s stray dogs, Putin’s Olympic project has certainly got off to a shaky start.

The greater concern is terrorist attacks. Putin is taking no chances, and a Russian ‘ring of steel’, a 50,000 strong security force, is on the alert in an area blighted by regional tensions. Two suicide attacks by Dagestan Islamist militants occurred in Volgograd last December, and Islamic terrorists have vowed a wave of attacks on Sochi to advance their goal of establishing an independent caliphate across the North Caucasus. US security officials have warned airlines flying directly to Russia to be on their guard for explosives hidden in toothpaste tubes, while two American warships are also stationed in the Black Sea.

Despite this shambolic start, Putin has said that he hopes the Olympics will ‘build bridges’ between modern Russia and the West. And in what was seen as a positive first step, last December Putin announced an amnesty for 20,000 prisoners, including pardons for the Arctic 30, and members of the punk protest band, Pussy Riot.

Thaw or cold war?

Some commentators say Putin is desperate to build bridges with the West and that Sochi is all about achieving that goal – a giant public relations exercise. He wants to shore up his standing globally by winning more friends among world leaders and to cement his image in Russia as a strong but magnanimous leader.

Naive! say others. Russia’s continued hardline over gay rights and the apparent indifference to harsh media coverage of the games, shows that, far from mounting a charm offensive, Putin is really more interested in showcasing his vision of a new Russian empire: robust, powerful and dominant. Whether effete Western liberals like it or not, he could not care less.

You Decide

  1. Is a boycott a legitimate form of protest?
  2. Can sporting events improve international relations?

Activities

  1. You have been given a wildcard to enter the Sochi Olympics. Which sport will you choose?
  2. Make a list of three examples from history where sport helped to heal deep political rifts. Take turns to present your examples to the class, and vote on the best.

Some People Say...

“Sport can change the world.’Nelson Mandela”

What do you think?

Q & A

Doesn’t everyone always moan about Olympic organisers?
It is true that Olympic sporting events are often criticised. Organisers at Vancouver in 2010 faced various accusations, including the charge that they did not award foreign competitors the same amount of training time as their Canadian rivals. Beijing and Athens also faced criticism, but Sochi is the first Olympics to become so entwined with the fight for gay rights.
Why do bad relations exist between Russia and the West?
The tensions have their origins in World War Two and the ensuing Cold War. More recently, friction over the Middle East, in particular the conflict in Syria and Iran’s nuclear agenda, has seen Russia and the West at loggerheads once more.

Word Watch

Expensive
The winter Olympics have cost around £31 billion. The previous games, held in Vancouver, cost just £4 billion.
Regional tensions
The southern Russian republic of Chechnya has been reduced to rubble by years of war between local separatists and Russian forces. In 2009, Moscow announced that it would end its military occupation against the rebels, due to the improved situation. However, suicide bombings by separatists continue.
Caliphate
An Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader.
Arctic 30
Greenpeace activists made headlines last September when 30 were arrested after staging a protest at an offshore Russian oil rig. They were charged with hooliganism by the Russian state and detained, before being pardoned and released in December.
Hardline
Putin signed a bill last summer which will result in fines for anyone caught disseminating propaganda about homosexual relationships to children.
Boycott
Some human rights groups have called upon countries to refuse to attend the games. Both the 1980 Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles games were blighted by boycotts, with the Americans staying away from Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union refusing to compete four years later.

Subjects

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