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Rising Temperatures Over Sochi

winter-olympicsFormer Diplomatic Editor of The Times, Michael Binyon, highlights the danger of the Winter Games being hijacked by issues that have nothing to do with sport


Before every Olympics there are dire warnings of disaster – the site is not finished, the costs are out of control or the Games are going to be attacked by terrorists. The Sochi Winter Games, due to begin on 7 February, are no different. The Russians have made sure that the sports facilities will be completed. But what is seen as a prestige project for President Putin faces a host of other challenges: protests by human rights groups, allegations of corruption over the massive cost of staging the Games, the threat of terrorism by Islamist militants and even the danger that Sochi – normally one of the warmest places in Russia – might not have enough snow.

Already these Winter Games have become the most expensive in the world, costing an estimated US$55 billion – more than twice the price of the larger summer Olympics in London in 2012 and more expensive than all the previous winter Olympics put together. And the President of the International Ski Federation has now accused Russian officials of corruptly siphoning off as much as a third of the cost in bribes and kickbacks. Gian-Franco Kasper, the Swiss member of the International Olympic Committee, said that about US$18 billion of the vast construction and development budget has been simply embezzled.

The Kremlin has reacted with angry embarrassment, and is likely to punish those responsible. Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, has ordered an investigation, and other Russian politicians have insisted that anyone found to have inflated the price of contracts must face the consequences.

But there are also other issues causing controversy. The issue that has caused the greatest annoyance in Moscow is the wave of protests by Western statesmen, human rights activists and even many athletes over Russia’s tough laws criminalising any publicity for gay rights. For the past six months gay activists have been calling for boycotts of Russian vodka and other exports, well-known public figures have denounced the new laws and a number of leaders in the West have announced their refusal to attend the Games. Neither Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, nor President Hollande of France, nor the British Prime Minister David Cameron will go to Sochi.

America has been the most outspoken. President Obama told a news conference that ‘Nobody is more offended than me’ by what he called Russia’s ‘anti-gay legislation.’ And in a move likely to cause considerable irritation in Russia, he has announced that the US delegation will include openly gay and lesbian stars such as the Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano and the veteran tennis player Billie Jean King.

The Russian Government insists there will be no discrimination against anyone. But Russian public opinion is largely hostile to gay rights. High profile campaigns over the issue by Western actors and film stars are seen in many quarters as an exaggeration, a rude intrusion into Russian internal affairs and an attempt to impose alien values on conservative Russian society.

But the campaign has attracted publicity in Western Europe and America, and even Jacques Rogge, the President of the International Olympic Committee, has become involved. He said that he had assurances that the new laws would not affect visitors, but ‘there are still uncertainties.’ He said these needed further clarification.

This is not an issue that has drawn world support. Russian legislation is no different from that in many parts of the world. But those countries where disapproval of gay rights is far stronger – in much of Africa or the Muslim world, for example – will have few athletes competing in Sochi. These Games will be attended overwhelmingly by athletes and spectators from Western countries, where such questions are seen differently.

The campaign has also drawn attention to the wider question of freedom of expression in Russia today and the recent restrictions on non-governmental organisations. This has provoked strong criticism from Western human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

The Kremlin would normally brush off such criticism as anti-Russian propaganda and outside interference. But it is clearly worried about any negative publicity, and at the end of last year unexpectedly released several prisoners whose cases have attracted widespread attention in the West. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who served ten years in prison after convictions for financial fraud and embezzlement, was released and flown out to Germany. The 30 people arrested during the Greenpeace protest at drilling in the Arctic – including citizens from Britain, the Netherlands and other Western countries – were freed and allowed to go home. And the two remaining prisoners from the infamous Pussy Riot women’s group were also released.

The reaction in the West has been less welcoming that the Kremlin had hoped. While welcoming the amnesty, many commentators have described it as a public relations ploy to defuse possible protests during the Games, and said the amnesty does not allow greater freedom of expression to other Russians. Several activists are determined to put Putin to the test by demanding the right to voice their protests in Sochi. As in previous Games, anyone with a political grievance believes the publicity surrounding the Olympics give them a perfect platform to speak out. At first Moscow decided, as did the Chinese in the Beijing summer Olympics, to enforce a blanket ban on protests so as not to disturb the Games. But the Kremlin has now announced that a small protest area, some distance from the Olympic site, will be set aside to allow demonstrators to speak out.

In truth, most people in the West are not particularly concerned about political expression within Russia. There is a general assumption that the Kremlin is largely hostile to public dissent. The general public in Britain, for example, is much more interested in the sporting events, and would be angry if news media gave too much publicity to protesters at the expense of what the athletes were doing on the ski slopes or skating rinks.

But there is a much more worrying concern that has been casting a shadow over the Games – the threat of terrorist action by Islamist extremists. The suicide bombings in Volgograd and the killings in  Stavropol, in southern Russia, have caused considerable alarm. Western governments fully support Russia’s determination to stamp out terrorism – though many politicians argue that the only long-term solution is to seek a new political settlement in the North Caucasus. Western intelligence services are therefore co-operating fully with Russia in monitoring extremist groups. The FBI has sent dozens of agents to Sochi. And even Britain’s intelligence services have resumed working with Moscow, more than seven years after the row over the killing of Litvinenko, a Russian dissident, in London.

Most people in Europe understand the need to seal off Sochi and take drastic measures to protect the safety of the athletes and visitors. But news that 100,000 police and troops will be deployed to patrol the Games has left many spectators nervous. It may certainly affect the atmosphere of the Games. The State Department and other Western governments have warned their citizens to be alert and careful when visiting Sochi. Russia insists that everything will be safe – and points to the fact that despite all the warnings about terrorism before the London Olympics and several others before that, there have been no serious terrorist incidents during an Olympic Games since the killing of Israeli athletes in Munich more than 40 years ago.

For Russia, the Games are an important prestige project, and no expense will be spared to ensure that they go ahead smoothly. But the controversies highlight the expense and difficulties nowadays for any country staging the Olympics, either in summer or winter, and the danger of the Games being hijacked by issues that have nothing to do with sport. There is just one thing Russia cannot control, however, and that is the weather. The Vancouver Winter Games were almost ruined at the start by unseasonably warm weather. Russia must now be desperately hoping that the world’s athletes and spectators get a proper cold welcome.


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