Sochi 2014: A contested games

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The Winter Olympics is tantalizingly close. And Putin must be delighted the wait is nearly over. Criticisms and controversies have come in waves, directed not only at the President’s policies and corruption, but safety and security, too. President Obama came out earlier this week, proclaiming that he was sure that Sochi would be safe, that the Russians understand what is at stake. But the fact that he felt the need to pass comment at all speaks volumes of the situation; that he himself is staying at home even more so.

It has been difficult for Russia. Undoubtedly, much of the hardship is self-inflicted. Appallingly draconian laws against gay people have rightly been attacked worldwide. Everyone knew there would be issues with Russia, with the laws and the way certain minority groups are treated – a ban on ‘the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors‘ probably not the brightest thing to do a year before hosting a major international event bringing with it a few openly gay athletes, and many more advocating gay rights. But the backlash has been monumental and unprecedented. Seldom have one man and one nation – let us not forget that the majority of Russians (supposedly) support these measures – come in for so much criticism on domestic law in the run up to an Olympic Games. Putin will be secretly incensed, too, that the UK government is openly financing gay rights campaigners in Russia. But he can breathe a long sigh of relief that the Olympics will go ahead with no major boycott in sight, despite Stephen Fry’s best efforts, which is something that Russia has not always managed to secure.

Domestic terrorism has been a problem for a long time in Russia, so the fears arising over security are normal and not hugely alarming. As ever, the chances of anyone dying from a terrorist attack are miniscule, though the threat is obviously raised at a major sporting event such as this. Attempts will be made, for sure, but if there is one thing Russia is good at, it is coming down hard on the enemies of the state. There will have been frustrations that Obama has openly spoken about the security situation, and that the US has ‘examined and approved’ Russia’s plans to deal with terrorism – the kind of global policeman statement Russia hates. The biggest problem will almost certainly not be in Sochi, where the security is vast, but in the surrounding areas, which may be left vulnerable by the focus on the City itself. Even the most excited of enthusiasts will have some reservations.

The criticisms faced by Putin and Russia as the Olympics approach are far from the normal grumblings of over-spending and pessimistic predictions of under-achieving. In reality, we don’t know what is going to happen. We don’t know if there will be attacks on people wearing rainbow colours on the streets, booing of athletes critical of policy in the stadium, or terrorist attacks in the cities and villages. The only thing we know for sure is that Putin must be eager to leave the limelight behind, and let the athletes start their search for medals. Now he can focus on what he really should be doing: praying the snow doesn’t melt.

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