I feel I should preface this post by making a few comments. First, the opinions expressed here are my own and not that of any organization I may belong to or be employed by. Also, this post is not anti-Olympics or Russia although it would be hard to argue it wasn’t critical of the Russian elite. This post is however for people and for athletes – Russian, Canadian and all other. It is simply about remembering why we have an Olympics in the first place.
I should warn you right up front that some will find this a bit of a downer. It’s not an article about what an Olympics should be about, but it needs to be said. An Olympics should be about athletes and the great performances that remind us of what we are capable of through dedication and passion for what we do. An Olympics is also about the struggle and challenges one faces to be the best they can be. What the Olympics should be about is precisely why I am writing this piece and also why I have waited until the conclusion of the Games before posting it. Quite apart from anti-gay legislation and other human rights offenses, there are serious issues with how Russia hosted the Olympics.
Let me start with the good. The most positive and shining impression I have of Russia is solely as a result of the volunteers. English is very different from Russian and it takes some practice to learn even a few words and yet, you could not enter or exit a venue, a cafeteria or a transportation hub without being welcomed and wished a good day by someone who has learned your language. To be frank, I found it absolutely charming and it very definitely affected my experience in Russia for the better. People are people, no matter what colour, language, political system or corner of the globe, and these wonderful people made us welcome.
The facilities were also very impressive. The sliding centre for example, was (and is) beautiful. The roofline is punctuated with giant laminate wood beams that flow like a wave over the entire start area as they do over the timing building and other start houses. I would estimate the cost of a single beam at several hundred thousand dollars if not more, but this is where it starts to fall down for me. From the first moment our team visited Sochi a year ago for our test event, it was painfully obvious that the facilities would likely end up mothballed within the decade or require significant further and likely ongoing investment to sustain whether they get used or not – and I’d imagine not.
With respect to the support walls above and beside the track, they have been constructed vertically as opposed to having a negative camber. And so, according to those who know more about it than I, over time will slowly begin to fail. The relatively few drainage holes in the walls, some dry and some flowing like a stream, is also a concern. I understand there are similar issues with regard to the ski jumping venue. What trumps all of this of course is the fact that it’s very unlikely the World Cup circuit will make Sochi a regular stop after they host the World Championships in three years time which has already been determined. Last February a bobsledder mentioned to me it cost him approximately 6000 Euros to get his sled to Sochi from Munich – not a truckload of bobsleds, one bobsled. In all honesty, I don’t know how feasible it is for the Russians to use the facility let alone the World Cup circuit.
$50 billion is more than what it cost to host all other Winter Olympics combined and how can this be justified?
How did we come to have a Winter Olympics in such a warm climate in the first place? I saw an American news program in which a number of people described Putin as more like a mob boss than a President. I have personally seen no evidence that he gave friends multi-billion dollar contracts to construct Games facilities or infrastructure. I haven’t seen or heard evidence of any illegalities at all. For me it just comes down to money, and to be clear, spending a lot of money on an Olympics, I believe is justified. I think it inspires our youth to get out there and try something new. Some of them even become Olympians themselves. Most don’t of course but if they find a sport or activity that they love to do, then what a wonderful gift. I think of money invested in sport as preventative health care and as such, what a bargain it is! But $50 billion is more than what it cost to host all other Winter Olympics combined and how can this be justified?
Our time last year in Rosa Khutor (the town in the mountains from which you access the sliding venue and athlete villages) exposed us to a less fortunate working class of Russians but even if there were no poor people at all in the country, the expense is ludicrous. The average Ethiopian household for example, earns less than $300 per year – should we ask them if $50 billion makes sense? I’m not at all unsympathetic to the plight of homosexual people in Russia but the reported three openly gay bars in Sochi makes me think this issue isn’t in the same ballpark as the poor who have watched their government build a train at a cost of $65000 per linear foot! The gap between rich and poor in Russia is already considered to be one of the biggest in the world. Spending $9 billion for a single track running an hour inland from the coast means someone is getting very, very rich in the face of this growing problem.
Spending so much money to host the Olympics is offensive and we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. If I wasn’t in favour of having the Olympics rotate amongst a number of predetermined host cities, I certainly am now. The Olympics have always been about athletes and their performances and inspiring the youth of the world. You could have held the women’s gold medal hockey game anywhere and we’d still be talking about the goal post and the comeback. I’ve enjoyed every moment of the Olympic competition because of people, because of the athletes, because of the support staff and because of the volunteers, all of which are a bargain in comparison to the inspiration they provide.
I’ve enjoyed every moment of the Olympic competition because of people, because of the athletes, because of the support staff and because of the volunteers…
I’ve even heard a few people express disappointment that more athletes didn’t use the platform to address the Russian anti-gay laws. Amateur athletes in my opinion do a disproportionately high amount of work for a number of wonderful charities, but when it’s time to compete, athletes should be left to compete. It’s up to the rest of us to let our views be known as to what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We should complain less about athletes not taking a stand if in the same breath we gush about how beautiful the Olympic park is. An obscene amount of money was spent to show the world a new and modern Russia and we’ve been distracted by the fact you can read the score of the hockey game on the roof of the arena. We need to take a very close look at how we conduct this great event to keep it the celebration of sport and youth that it is meant to be.