DISCLAIMER: I’ll admit that I originally planned to post this blog on the day of the opening ceremonies. In retrospect, I’m glad that I waited until the halfway point because I learned more about them in the last while.
The Olympic Games are being held in Sochi, Russia from February 7th to 23rd. 2800 athletes from 88 countries will be competing in the 98 medal events in fifteen different sports. In this, I will look at the city of Sochi, the new events, what Russia and especially Putin plan to get out of these games and the side-news that has been making headlines before the Olympics.
SOCHI THE CITY:
Sochi is a city in Russia with a population of 420,000. Sochi sits at the foot of the Sochi River on the east coast of the Black Sea just 20 miles north of the Russia-Georgia border with the Caucasus Mountains on the horizon. The city had been formed over various years of wars and conquering tribes. It was after both the Caucasus War and the Russo-Turkish War that was ceded to the Russians back in 1829. British intervention would occur in monitoring the weapons of the war. The Fort of Alexandria would be constructed in 1838 at the mouth of the Sochi River. That would later have an impact on forming the city. Many more forts would be set up close to the Fort of Alexandria including the Fort Dakhovsky. Fighting would continue until the end of the Caucasus War in 1864.
Starting in 1866 people of various ethnicities settled around the coast of the Black Sea. In 1874 the first Russian Orthodox church was built on the former Fort Dakhovsky and the settlement was renamed the Dakhovsky Posad. The Sochi Lighthouse was built in 1890 and the Dahkovsky Posad renamed themselves the Sochi Posad and incorporated themselves into the Black Sea governate. Sochi opened its first sea resort in 1909 and the town was granted full town status in 1917. Then came the war between Russia and Georgia. The war ended in 1923 with Sochi declared Russian territory. Joseph Stalin helped promote Sochi as a fashionable resort. After the fall of the USSR, Sochi has been promoted in Russia as the capital of summer.
THE GAMES AND THEIR HOPES:
These Olympic Games cost $51 billion to build: $39 million more than originally anticipated and more than any other Olympic Games in history. This was not only for the sake of building more facilities for hosting events. This also included telecommunications improvements in the region, power infrastructure upgrades, transportation improvements on all means of transportation, over 10,000 additional hotel rooms and six additional post offices.
The Olympic sites have been divided into two clusters: the Coastal Cluster inside the town and the Mountain Cluster into the Caucasus Mountains. The Coastal Cluster consists of the Olympic Park containing the Olympic Flame, the Fisht Olympic Stadium, two hockey arenas, a figure skating arena, a speed skating oval, a curling centre, the Olympic village, and the International broadcasting centre. The Mountain Cluster–located in the area called Krasnaya Polyana or ‘Red Hills’–consists of five venues including a Nordic skiing complex, a ski jumping centre, an alpine resort including an extreme park for snowboarding and freestyle skiing, a sliding centre and an Olympic village.
This isn’t all completely in vain for the sake of these seventeen days, or at least they’re not intended to be. The city of Sochi is expecting to make big improvements and grow considerably after the Olympic Games. Fisht Olympic Stadium plans to be continued as a football facility after the Olympics and is even one of the venues for the 2018 World Cup. The city of Sochi itself is signed on to be host of the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix from 2014 to 2020. The RusSki Gorki ski jumping hills are to be used as a training facility for jumpers and two smaller hills for youth training are planned to be added after the Games. The ski hills at Rosa Khutor have been designed by a 1972 Olympic champion and plan to be part of future World Cup seasons. In fact Vladimir Putin is hoping to have Sochi become a winter resort that can compete with the resorts of France, Switzerland and Italy. In fact Putin had a conversation with one world leader where he said: “The rich travel to France and Switzerland to go skiing. Why not Krasnaya Polyana?”
Even as shown in the Opening Ceremonies, the Games hope to present a positive picture of Russia especially since it has made a lot of bad news in terms of politics, social problems, alcoholism, poverty, crime and even terrorism. Putin is hoping to improve ties with other countries. Putin is also hoping to improve the family structure in Russia with declining birth rates. Putin is also hoping these Games will stimulate the Russian economy. Let’s hope those $51 billion pay off, Vlad.
Even for venues planned for just those seventeen days, they too have post-games uses planned for them. The Bolshoi Ice Dome, the biggest of the hockey/skating venues, has plans for further ice events and concerts. Shayba Arena is a temporary hockey venue which is planned to be dismantled and shipped off to another city. The Iceberg Skating Palace has two post-games options of remaining an ice arena or a cycling velodrome. The Adler Oval for speed skating is slated to be an exhibition centre after the Games. The Ice Cube Curling Centre plans to stay a sports facility but can be moved to another location. Whether the plans will follow through and whether they will pay off in the end is something only the future will tell.
NEW TO THE PROGRAM:
Back in Vancouver there were 86 events. Here in Sochi there were an additional 12 events added to the program:
- Figure Skating Team Event-There will be three mixed events where both men and women compete together contested for the first time here in Sochi. The Figure Skating Team event consists of ten countries competing in both short programs and free skates of men’s singles, ladies’ singles, pairs and dance. Points are based on the country’s entry’s placeage in each program. Team with the highest total of points wins the gold.
- Freestyle Skiing Halfpipe (men and women)- The halfpipe event that’s one of the highlights of the snowboarding events have now been added to freestyle skiing.
- Slopestyle events in snowboarding and freestyle skiing (men and women)- It’s like skateboarding on snow. Consists of first skiing or boarding on rails and then doing daring jumps off the three kickers. Points are scored on difficulty and execution.
- Snowboarding Parallel Slalom (men and women)- Since 2002, snowboarding has had the Parallel Giant Slalom where two racers are paired together for two runs with last racer standing as winner. This Olympics marks the debut of the Parallel Slalom with tighter turns. Same method of deciding the winner as the Parallel Giant Slalom.
- Biathlon Mixed Relay-two women on each team ski and shoot for 6 km, two men ski and shoot for 7.5 km. Not even cross-country skiing has a mixed relay.
- Luge Team Relay-the relay consists of a men’s singles sledder going down first, touches a touch-sensitive pad that releases the gate for the next sled, the ladies’ singled sledder, to go down and then she touches the pad to let the men’s doubles sled go. The team with the fastest combined time wins.
- Women’s ski jumping (normal hill)-You may remember before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics there was a brouhaha about getting Women’s Ski Jumping added to the Olympic program. The IOC decided the event wasn’t competitive enough to be added to those Games. Since then the event has become competitive enough to be added to the Olympic program. Women will compete in one event: the normal hill.
With every Olympic Games come problems and they will get a lot of notice in the months leading up to an Olympic Games. Same with Sochi and there were two issues that received huge notice:
PUTIN’S ANTI-GAY LAWS
The administration of Vladimir Putin has not sit well with the many human rights groups on various issues but the biggest firestorm in the last few months came because of recent laws passed against the GLBT population and didn’t appear to make tourists immune to those laws. The laws were the prevention of distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, which effectively makes it illegal to suggest that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships or to distribute material on gay rights and even bans gay pride parades. The media has reported of an arrest of a gay rights activist and an increase in ‘hate crimes’ against the GLBT population including against GLBT minors.
The laws have been protested against a multitude of people including GLBT rights activists and their supporters, famous celebrities like Lady Gaga and 27 Nobel Prize winners from arts and sciences. Putin has responded to the pressure by saying that GLBT tourist during the Sochi Olympics will not be under threat. Some heads of state chose not to come to these Olympic Games allegedly because of the laws. Thomas Bach wants to keep the Olympic arena free of politics just like past presidents of the IOC and has even threatened to ban athletes who protest the laws. As harsh as that is, we shouldn’t forget we’re dealing with the same IOC that punished the two black sprinters from 1968 that gave the ‘black power’ salute on the victory podium. I’m sure most of you know the story. Bach has responded back to the protests both in pre-Olympic announcements and in his speech during the opening ceremonies: “Have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”
My Personal Vent: Personally I wasn’t happy about all those protests over Putin’s anti-gay laws. Now, don’t get me wrong. Yes, it is a problem. However it’s one of a whole whack of human rights problems inside the Russian Federation under Putin right now. The GLBT community isn’t the only set of people being hit hard or legally punished in Putin’s regime. Remember the free speech problem many months ago involving feminist punk band Pussy Riot? Even that’s one of many. The reason why I found it irritating is because I saw it as another case of the GLBT community ‘hijacking’ issues. Much the same way they ‘hijacked’ the issue of Eminem’s lyrics in 2000 while the GLBT people were one of many groups of people verbally slammed in Eminem’s records. And how they ‘hijacked’ the bullying suicides issue in 2010. It didn’t last as recent suicides from bullying involving non-GLBT teens like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons reminded the public that bullying suicides occur indiscriminately. I don’t have a problem with pre-Olympic protests but I do wish other groups of people were just as loud at speaking their concerns rather than GLBT activists hogging the show.
ETHNIC CIRCASSIAN DISSENT:
A bit of a history lesson. The Circassian peoples used to have the area around Sochi and the Krasnaya Polyana as their own centuries ago. Unfortunately most Circassians were killed during the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Russian-Circassian War from 1763 to 1864. Today there are 900,000 ethnic Circassians in Russia.
Some Circassian groups objected to the Games being held on land that was held by their ancestors before the war. There are two other factors that also leave many Circassians unhappy with the Games. One is the fact the Games are being held in 2014 which coincides with the 150th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Circassian war. The second being events held on the Krasnaya Polyana which were named the ‘Red Hills’ because of the bloodshed of a group of Circassians that attempted to return to their homes in a bloody battle in 1864.
Reactions amongst Circassians have been mixed. Some demand the Games be moved outside Russia unless Russia apologizes. Some accept the Games but want symbols of Circassian history be included the same way indigenous culture was included in past Games like Vancouver in 2010 and Sydney in 2000. There has been no response as to what has been done in this matter.
THREATS OF TERRORISM
The threat of terrorism has been taken seriously since the death of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Sochi is located in an area prone to terrorism. It’s located close to a set of provinces in the North Caucasus such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia to name a few. A lot of them have been fighting over their rights of their ethnicity and of their religion. Chechnya has been in the news the most firstly because of the First Chechen War that occurred between 1994 and 1996 just as Russia was defining itself in the post-USSR era. Wars have continued and Putin has responded with many human rights group call brutal force.
Islamic Chechen terrorists have declared a jihad and created a lot of terrorism since the First Chechen War which first started with hotel bombings in Russia in 1999 and has consisted of many incidents since. Most within the past five years like numerous car bombs, an express train bombing, Moscow subway bombings, an attack on Chechen parliament, a bombing at Moscow’s international airport and even links to last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.
The Chechen Islamist commander Dokka Umarov called for an attack in the Games back in July 2013 stating that the Games will be held: “on the bones of many Muslims killed.” Athletes that were to compete before the Games and many national Olympic Committees received threatening e-mails from terrorist groups threatening to blow them up. It got to the point the US ski and snowboard agency hired a private security agency to protect them during the Games. Even the US government added to the scare a week before when they talked about the possibility of ‘toothpaste bombs’ that can be made in tubes of toothpaste of 100ml or more.
Security during these Games will be handled by 40,000 law enforcement officials including police and the Russian Armed Forces. Putin even signed a Presidential Decree at the beginning of the year declaring that any protest in Sochi or the surrounding areas be approved by the Federal Security Services. There’s also an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron with defense rockets to protect Olympic airspace. There are four gunboats along the Black Sea to protect the coastline. Forces are also set up along the Russia-Georgia border and even the US has agreed to lend Navy ships and other assets for security purposes.
The closest thing to an incident was on February 7th during the opening ceremonies when a Pegasus Air Line from Kharkiv, Ukraine to Istanbul, Turkey was hijacked by a person claiming to have a bomb and wanted it flown to Sochi. The plane arrived at its destination in Istanbul and the passenger was arrested with no weapons or bombs found on the place. Since then there have been no incidents occurring.
The Sochi Olympics sure made a lot of news in the months leading up to their opening. They are currently making news mostly for the good in the days of competition held. The Games end on February 23rd with the Paralympics opening on March 7th. It remains to be seen whether the Games will pay off, whether they will continue to run smoothly without incident and whether Sochi and Russia itself make improvements in the months and years after.
WIKIPEDIA: 2014 Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Winter_Olympics>