Waiting for Sochi

Putin’s decision to host the 2014 Winter games in the city of Sochi has puzzled outside observers from the start. Located in the southern most region of Russia, Sochi is in the subtropics, around the same line of latitude as the French Riviera. The city is best known for its beach resorts, with February temperatures sometimes peaking in the low 60s. Skiers often wear raincoats as the slopes are more wet than frosty. The area is Putin’s favorite vacation spot, though. So it goes in Russia.

Sochi totally lacked infrastructure anywhere near sufficient to support the herculean task of hosting the Olympics. An excess of $50 billion has already been poured into the Games to build basic necessities including more roads, railways, bridges, and a hospital to name a few. To make way for construction, thousands have been forcibly relocated. There have even been reports of workers bulldozing houses without even checking for occupants. Putin has personally overseen Sochi’s development, immediately firing any bureaucrats he finds incapable of moving forward with the brutal efficiency he espouses.

Bulldozing the way to the Olympic Games is nothing new. For the 2008 summer Olympics, Beijing, in similar fashion, forcibly removed millions living in the traditional and historic hutong neighborhoods it deemed necessary to raze in order to prop up the Olympic Park. The government tightened its grip, crushing protests and silencing opposition in the face of all the positive virtues of human value the Olympics seeks to instill.

But the comparison to Beijing shouldn’t stop there. It seems that though China sought to show through the Olympics how far their country had come, the persistent human rights violations and suffocating pollution that surrounded the Games acted as even a more ample representation of how far they had yet to go.

The same is proving true for Russia. More than anything else, Sochi has underscored the intractable problem of insurgency in the Northern Caucasus region of Russia. As early as the second Chechen war in 1999, Islamic insurgency in the region has run rampant. Islamist radicals have mounted attacks taking hundreds of lives over the past decade. Planes, movie theaters, train stations, and buses have all been targets for bombings and gunfire. Two successful attacks in Volgograd killed 34 people less than a month ago.

And then there are the black widows. The name describes the widows of killed insurgents that have now turned to terrorism themselves, often becoming suicide bombers. The term properly connotes the brand of virulence and violence these women embody: they have held hostages and detonated bombs, playing important roles in the insurgency. In an effort to curb potential threats towards the Games, the photos of three black widows have been blasted out through media outlets. One black widow is suspected to have infiltrated the Olympic host city already.

Herein lies the same sort of dark irony in what the Olympics revealed for China: despite its evocation of hope and its enshrining of the human potential the Russian Olympics have brought about terror and danger of death. Instead of celebrating its host nation, hosting the games has only illustrated Russia’s flaws more starkly. At this point, one can only speculate what the legacy of Sochi will be. Terror cells, scrambling for a chance to take advantage of the global spotlight, will do all in their power to make it one of fear and bloodshed as authorities do everything possible to prevent an attack.

Meanwhile, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics, for all its similar abuses of human rights, has faded more quietly in our memories. The Olympic Park now seems even larger given its comparative emptiness. With the athletes long gone, the grounds have become still and quiet under the blanket of Beijing smog. Few are left, save for the street vendors who constantly peddle cheap toys and souvenirs in the shadow of the now vacant Bird’s Nest stadium for the tourists who pass through.


–Alexander Kane