A Very Cold Winter Olympics

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey

When he entered his hotel room in Sochi, journalist Kevin Bishop discovered that while his room lacked a floor, there was a highly-visible photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Missing floors were only one of several problems that plagued the Sochi games. Olympics attendees arrived to find half-built rooms, undrinkable water, and unfinished lobbies. Although these problems may seem trivial, the Olympics have helped reveal not only Putin’s role as a leader, but also Russia’s current position in the world. The image revealed is not a positive one.

Sochi’s failure has been striking. First, the games were plagued by budgetary excess. The Sochi organizers spent around $50 billion on the games, over four times the amount spent on the last Vancouver Winter Olympics.  The International Olympics Committee estimates that a third of this money has been stolen. Former presidential candidate and organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics Mitt Romney described the Sochi games as “an unsavory vanity project.” He assailed a process that spent $50 billion on sports when, in his opinion, only $2-3 billion is necessary; he suggested the other $40 billion or so could be donated or used to fight poverty.  It is ironic that the biggest recent spenders on the Olympics have been China and Russia, both countries with about 13% poverty.

Second, the Russian government has pursued many alarming policies that have marred the games’ image. From disagreements about LGBT issues, to the failure to erect livable hotels, to the killing of all stray dogs, the Sochi Olympics represents how backwards and misguided Putin’s leadership is. Russia’s new anti-gay laws, championed by Putin, continue to elicit widespread condemnation on the world stage. This issue has only received more attention as the games have neared.

Putin hasn’t only targeted homosexuals. Shortly before the games, Putin ordered that all stray dogs be killed in the Sochi area, stoking international protests. The New York Times reported that local Russian animal rights activists are working to save these dogs, highlighting the conflict between the Russian leader and his civilians. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has reversed many of its democratic reforms. The 2011 Democracy Index, a service that ranks countries by their democratic merits, placed Russia at #117 and classified the nation as an authoritarian regime.  The games’ main objective should be to lovingly host and welcome all countries of the world in the name of sport. A leader that openly targets homosexuals and orders the massacre of stray dogs is clearly not upholding the “Olympic spirit.”

Perhaps Russia simply isn’t capable of hosting massive events. The games’ failures shed light on Russians’ day to day difficulties.  Putin chose to publicize Sochi as a resort, yet problems like undrinkable water, sewage holes in the street and unfinished lobbies populate the 2014 games. However, are these problems aren’t limited to the games but rather reflect wider problems within Russia. Russians are responding to the trending idea of an Olympic failure with the term zloradstvo, or “malicious glee.” Russians believe that the western response to these #SochiProblems are primarily due to a subconscious belief of superiority. While this is true, examples of poor living standards leads to a Russia that needs fixing. This sheds light on Russia’s failures as a country and proves that the Sochi games are not showcasing Russia’s resurgence as a country.

Putin’s failures are not limited to the domestic sphere. The Olympic games were created to bring nations together and ease global tensions, yet it is clear that, in Sochi, this has not been accomplished.  In fact, the 2014 Sochi Olympics, in its failures, has highlighted many burgeoning conflicts between the rest of the world and Russia. This seemingly echoes many Cold War era tensions.

Putin wanted Sochi to be a “symbol of international recognition and a crowning moment for Vladimir Putin.”  As the Opening Ceremonies began and the Olympic torch was lit, Putin wanted to send a loud message that would reverberate across capitals around the world: Russia is back. Using the Olympics to send this type of message is not without precedent.  Worldwide propaganda of a leader only inflate the leader’s ego and, more dangerously, increase a regime’s legitimacy.

Putin’s international power is unfortunately larger than many would like to believe.  Conflicts in Ukraine reflect a Cold War dynamic; echoing conflicts between the United States and Russia from the 1950s to the 1990s, so Russia is now battling the European Union for Ukraine’s alliance. Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych now refuses to sign an expected agreement moving towards alignment with the EU. The refusal of this deal strengthens ties with Russia and Putin, and it is likely that a closer relationship with Russia will endanger Ukraine by signifying a move towards authoritarianism, according to PBS. More than 50% of Ukraine would like to ally more with the EU due to the attraction of a more democratic system. The battle between Russia and the European Union is characterized by Putin’s desire to create a “Euroasian Union”. While Putin does not use bombs and tanks to create allegiances, he does tempt Ukraine with money, trade agreements, and promised military support.

Putin’s plans not only include expanding alliances with White Russia, four countries surrounding Russia that live in its influence, but also reaching out to the Middle East.  Echoing its Cold War past, Putin’s Russia is providing military aid to Egypt, Syria and Iran, according to The Canada Free Press.  In comparison with the United States’ policies towards the Middle East, which the article explains to be a series of failures to manage crises after crises, Russia is creating alliances and support within the Middle East. As Russia expands its influence, the United States should be worried. Putin has few qualms about opposing American diplomatic initiatives, which was evident when he vocalized his opposition to American sanctions on Iran. The Canada Free Press’s Ali Sharnoby even states that Russia views the United States as “the largest source of global instability”. This renewed international tension, especially when viewed in contrast to the Olympian ideal of world harmony, revives worries that the Cold War is not truly over. By seeking to extend Russia’s influence abroad using many Soviet-era tactics, Putin has escalated global tensions to a dangerous level.

Russia initially bid for the Olympic games by promising a beautiful resort-like town, groundbreaking renewable energy initiatives, and a transparent spending process. The country has not lived up to its promises. One promise we are left with is that Putin will certainly be active in expanding his sphere of influence in coming years.  A cold Winter Olympics is only the beginning of the next chapter of the Cold War.

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