Monday, February 17, 2014

Sochi's Games have been great, and that's not good

By on Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 4:06 PM

click to enlarge The International Olympic Committee executive board meets in Sochi days before the opening of the Games. These Russian Olympics have run smoothly, but will the IOC be able to see the bigger picture? - PHOTO BY IAN JONES/IOC
  • Photo by Ian Jones/IOC
  • The International Olympic Committee executive board meets in Sochi days before the opening of the Games. These Russian Olympics have run smoothly, but will the IOC be able to see the bigger picture?

Admit it: you were expecting Sochi’s Winter Olympics to go a lot worse.

And it’s likely that whatever bar you set for these Games only continued to go lower as they drew near.

If reports of terrorist threats infiltrating Sochi’s security perimeter, corruption that ballooned the budget beyond $50 billion and the embarrassing attitudes towards LGBTQ lifestyles set the stage, then the Schadenfreude we reveled in, as media members documented their half-finished hotels and homeless four-legged friends, looked to be Act One of an Olympic tragicomedy that would play out on the shore of the Black Sea.

And then there was the hiccup of the broken Olympic ring in the early moments of the Opening Ceremony. If The Guardian felt that Vancouver and Whistler’s Olympics were truly “the worst Games ever,” then Sochi’s were certainly going to be the worst-est.

But really, since then, what complaints can one have about these Olympics?

From a purely logistical standpoint, the Games seem to be going on without many problems. Above-freezing temperatures have impacted some of the ski and snowboard events, but the weather is hardly under the control of the organizing committee. If you don’t like the fact that these Olympics are taking place in a subtropical climate zone — or that they're in Russia for any reason, for that matter — blame the International Olympic Committee for putting them there.

Of course, as I write this blog entry on Day 10, much could yet happen that changes our overall perception of how these Olympics played out. But a flood of complaints about why these Games are awful haven’t come as expected.

It’s difficult to assess the working parts of an Olympics without being on the ground there, but the indications are that the way these Games have been organized is conducive to smooth operations. The proximity of the venues in the coastal cluster has been convenient for athletes, spectators and media alike. The volunteers appear to be helpful, friendly and enthusiastic. Reports are that transportation links are effective and running on schedule.

When the IOC cancelled daily troubleshooting meetings with the host organizing committee on Day 4, citing the “successful start to the Games,” I was encouraged but skeptical. When the greatest men’s hockey player in Olympic history praised what was going on in Sochi, I was completely convinced things are going well.

“Best organized Olympics so far, for me,” said six-time Olympian and all-time leading scorer Teemu Selanne. “Everything is easy for athletes. Everything is close. Everything is brand new. $50 billion works.”

And, although Vladimir Putin was present at Canada Olympic House when he spoke these words, therefore requiring many grains of salt, Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut called these Games “probably the best ever.”

Unfortunately, in the bigger picture, these Olympics running like a well-oiled machine is probably the worst thing that could have happened.

These Games are Putin’s, representing his chance to show off Russia to the world. So far, the global community is seeing his country exactly as he’d like it to, which is by what can be seen on the surface. Behind a façade of five rings are a multitude of human rights abuses, shady dealings by bureaucrats and organized criminals, and civil and political unrest.

Many believe that the IOC made a mistake in selecting Russia as an Olympic host because of these underlying issues. Had these Games been a disaster, the IOC likely would have had to take a harder look at how it chooses who gets them, and whether or not a country’s domestic problems should impact the decision-making process.

So far, all the IOC will have learned from Sochi is that the challenges and turmoil within an Olympic host’s borders can be overcome by throwing money at the problem. The greater issues at hand, which go well beyond sport, are piled beneath wads of dirty rubles.

It is incredibly difficult to separate competition from controversy in Sochi, but for the athletes, that must be the case. They are there to realize lifelong and career goals that have taken years of perseverance, dedication and sacrifice to achieve. They are in Sochi for the defining moments of their careers — nay, lives. They aren’t there to make a political statement, and shouldn’t be expected to.

That’s why I find criticisms levelled at Canadian athletes for warmly welcoming Putin to their home base a waste of time. I'd go on, but I think Gary Lawless summed things up best in his column today about the backlash faced by speed skater Brittany Schussler over the incident. 

Ultimately, the athletes do not decide where they’ll compete — tell them where the medals are being handed out and they’ll show up. It’s incumbent upon the IOC to recognize that the smoothest of Winter Games means nothing if they are held in a place that fails to adhere to the Olympic ideals.  

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