Shaming Sochi? Shame on you track

(By Megan Spurrell, U of T Editor-In-Chief)


“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing.” Oscar Wilde


In the days preceding the opening ceremonies, “Putin’s Games” did not appear to be much fun for Western journalists. Social media was abuzz as reporters documented their overindulged arrogance, whining about how their Olympic assignment had fallen short of its $50 billion expectations. The Twitter account @SochiProblems was created to organize these musings. Pictures and posts of the city were shared around the globe, featuring uncomfortable restroom arrangements, contaminated water, and debris from unfinished construction.

Perhaps too accustomed to the luxury of the West, well-educated journalists made light of serious issues that affect the daily lives of Russian citizens. The account captioned one photo of two glasses of water. It read: “Enjoy your peach juice, it comes directly from the tap! #SochiProblems.” Due to the illnesses caused by unsanitary water, most Russians cannot drink from their taps. A more accurate description is probably “kidney poison.” In fact, only half of Russian residents had access to water that met standards for safe drinking in 2002 according to an article by Andrew Kramer in the New York Times in December 2005. Those who cannot afford filtered or bottled water are forced to boil some and hope for the best – at least the glass is half full of something.

As foreign reporters struggled to adjust to this cultural shock, it should be remembered that locals are likely to face this reality for years to come. Sochi officials promised to build a new water supply system just in time for the games, but evidently they failed.

Other pictures on the @SochiProblems newsfeed show incomplete hotel accommodations that are either falling apart, or have yet to be put together. While it may seem innocent enough to laugh at absent shower curtains, broken window dressings, and coat hangers abandoned in the hallways, such mishaps expose injustice rather than incompetence.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch conducted extensive interviews with 66 migrant labourers hired to work on Olympic projects in Sochi. The workers reported many abuses including delayed payments, partial payments, withheld identity documents, and disregarded labour contracts. It is worth noting that “payments” usually referred to hourly wages of $1.80-$2.60. The report focused its attention on migrant workers, but affirmed that Russian natives suffered similar exploitation. If an employer refused to pay my meagre wage in full, or coerced me into working 12 hours a day for seven days a week, I would walk away from coat hangers in a hallway too. I wouldn’t even look back.

It is all too easy to start pointing fingers and shouting blame. The Kremlin is either unwilling or unable to seek redress on behalf of workers in Sochi and the International Olympic Committee has squandered its obligation, according to their charter, to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Undoubtedly, both parties should have done more to ensure that workers’ rights were not violated in preparation for the games, but sole responsibility for the “preservation of human dignity” does not fall on a single organization. The media, by its very nature, serves essential functions such as information sharing and crisis monitoring. It has succeeded many times in the past to raise awareness and provide critical commentary on the issues that impact society.

In attempting to humiliate Russia with tweets of eyesores and inconveniences, Western journalists have only embarrassed themselves, showcasing ignorance’s bliss for the world to see. What is worth reporting is that Sochi’s problems are so much graver than #SochiProblems.



The Necessity of the Politicization of the Olympic Games

Aisha Kakinuma-Hassan- U of T VP Marketing and Advertising


When it was announced that President Obama would not be attending the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, schedule conflict was cited as the reason for his lack of attendance. Yet tensions between the United States and the host country make it clear that Obama’s absence is a way of demonstrating his political stance against Putin’s recent domestic and foreign policies, most notably the passing of a law banning “gay propaganda” – a law undoubtedly interpreted as anti-gay.

This is the first time since 2000 that the United States has decided to not send a president, first lady or vice-president to the games. Instead, the American delegation at Sochi includes a former cabinet official and two openly gay athletes. Despite the event’s emphasis on encouraging sportsmanship between nations worldwide, Obama’s approach to the Sochi Olympics make it glaringly obvious that the games are also used as a platform for political play.

As one of the largest world events to take place, it is only natural that politics tend to shape how the portrayal of host cities transpire before, during and after the games. While this displaces the attention from athleticism to politics, this may not necessarily be seen as a negative consequence.

The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were riddled with controversy as China was accused of obvious human rights violations in their role in conflicts in Darfur, Myanmar, and Tibet. Yet this helped promote these issues, as headlines were dominated by the pro-Tibet movement, examples of human rights violations and leaders playing with the idea of boycotting the games entirely.

Similarly, in the months leading up to the Sochi Olympics, the exposure and endorsements of Winter athletes have been clouded by the media’s focus on the international community revolting against Putin’s “gay propaganda” law. International organisations and world leaders reached a point where once again, many considered boycotting the games. Though ultimately, in the name of supporting their athletes, no country has refused to participate, the absence of many prominent world leaders at Sochi, specifically six out of the eight G8 members (excluding Japan and Italy) is symbolic of where the world stands on human rights issues. As members of a leading world organisation, they have a responsibility to take a stance on issues, and while many may have concerns about whether an international sporting event is the suitable time and place in which to focus on such issues, the immense scale of the event and its resulting media exposure does make it an opportune occasion.

While this means that the Olympics become less about the athletes and more of a political playing field, they provide an opportunity to call attention to human rights issues worldwide. For the entire duration that the Olympic games and its host cities dominate headlines, it is a chance for the world to devote attention towards issues in which the international community can exert influence as they come together not only to demonstrate solidarity in sportsmanship, but also solidarity in the equality of humankind.



Unsurprising Corruption in Sochi: IOC’s continual Flaws in Logic in Choosing Host Cities

Elaine Logashov- U of T President


While Russia’s unsmiling kleptocrat, Vladimir Putin, is certainly culpable of revolting human rights breaches and financial irresponsibility to Russian citizens, the true villains of the Sochi Olympic Games are the people who allowed it to be held there.

Allegations of the Kremlin’s corruption are at this point so absurdly undebatable that making them almost feels fruitless. The international community is not surprised that corruption has been cited as the main reason behind Sochi’s expansive, if not utterly ridiculous $50 billion budget. Although corruption takes place in every Olympics (and it is naïve to assume otherwise), Russia’s unaccounted-for $30 billion is proving to rise above and beyond the conceptions of Olympic overindulgence.

Some can argue that Sochi’s overwhelming budget can be justified because before its Olympic transformation, Sochi was a small, regional town with very limited infrastructure, especially for hosting the world’s most important quadrennial event. Most of the money spent on Sochi, and in similar underdeveloped host-nations with unsuitable infrastructure, comes directly from taxpayers’ pockets. Instead of increasing the quality of life of their citizens by providing basic human needs, for instance, clean water – something that Sochi evidently lacks – Putin chose to spend it on creating hotels and stadiums for recreational winter activities in the subtropical climate of Sochi.

To posit that these venues are investments for Russia is ignorant of the fact that while they serve their initial purpose, they will most likely be abandoned following the end of the Olympics. Of course, there is a chance that these exceptionally lavish arenas will prove to be good investments, but there is absolutely no certainty in that statement – $50 billion is too much to spend on something that does not necessarily guarantee a payback to citizens. Nations like Russia and Brazil, the upcoming host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, need to cut back on Olympic spending and instead allocate their funds to providing their citizens with what they need, not something that may or may not benefit them in the near future. However, as with previous Olympics, Sochi was less about “sportsmanship” and more of a showcasing of Russia’s economic prowess. While it’s nice to say that Putin should be more financially responsible to his citizens, it is clear that he is not morally capable.

The point of contention is therefore not with the corrupt governments of the host-nations, but rather with the International Olympics Committee to ensure that cities such as Sochi, who have few Olympic-ready facilities, are not named hosts. This is the responsibility of the IOC, which they have ultimately failed to meet by choosing a subtropical city for the winter Olympics in a painfully corrupt, contentious, and problematic country. Sochi may be illustrative of the accelerating economic modernization of Russia, but it is also a symbol for the financial ignorance of the G8 constituent, and more importantly, a symbol for the IOC’s inability to make wise decisions in choosing an appropriate, responsible host.