With the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games just three months away, Russia’s recently passed anti-gay law has led to widespread protests, leading Barack Obama to publicly state, “I don’t think it is appropriate to boycott the Olympics.” The International Olympic Committee is similarly satisfied with the new law, stating it does not breach the Olympic charter, which forbids discrimination of any kind. The extent to which the new law will impact the Games—and Russian society more generally—remains to be seen, but there are three other important reasons to question the Sochi Olympics.
The Circassians. Sochi is the ancestral home of the Circassians, an ethnic Caucasian group forcibly removed from the region in 1864, after a lengthy war. The Games will mark 150 years since Russian troops won a final victory over the Circassians following a 35-year war in which an estimated 800,000 died and over one million were displaced. The Games being awarded to Sochi has awakened the Circassian diaspora, based largely in Turkey, and there are now significant efforts to raise awareness of the Circassians’ expulsion from their homeland, with some international media outlets taking up their story. One Circassian group, which runs the nosochi2014.com website, has produced an uncompromising media campaign that includes a poster with the words, “You’ll be skiing on mass graves in Sochi.” Despite Circassian efforts, Russia is refusing to acknowledge their claims, and the unparalleled levels of security in the region mean the Circassians will be unlikely to make their voices heard in Sochi next February.
The costs. Initially, President Putin claimed USD $12 billion would be needed for the Sochi project. Latest estimates, however, suggest that figure has risen to $51 billion. To put that in perspective, it amounts to more than the combined cost of all previous Winter Olympic Games. According to leading opposition figures in Russia, up to $30 billion—more than half of the total cost—has been embezzled or spent on kickbacks. But corruption is not the only issue regarding costs. The infrastructure for Sochi 2014 had to be almost completely built from scratch, and not always successfully so—the ski jump alone has had to be redone “many times,” with its cost rising sevenfold. In an attempt to lessen concerns over costs, the official Russian narrative has praised the new infrastructure and the increased employment in the region, but questions on what to do with the 11 competition venues after Sochi 2014 remain unanswered. Worse still, over 16,000 (mostly unskilled) jobs have not been given to local inhabitants but to migrant workers, who have been exploited in a number of ways.
Environmental costs must also be considered. Landfills now exist in vulnerable areas, and “rivers have been diverted or polluted and ski resorts have been built in UNESCO World Heritage sites,” says Arnold van Bruggen, writer of The Sochi Project (an extensive journalistic research project on the Sochi Games). The Russian organising committee has largely avoided widespread criticism of environmental degradation through a range of media stories surrounding its positive environmental projects relating to the Games, such as the reintroduction of the Persian leopard (known locally as the Caucasian leopard) in the Caucasus region. The full extent of the environmental costs is not yet known, but, as opposition leader Boris Nemtsov says, “all this sacrifice is for facilities that will most likely not be used when the games are over”.
The forced evictions. Organisers of the Beijing Olympics faced heavy criticism for forcibly relocating residents in the lead-up to its Games, and the forthcoming FIFA World Cup and Olympics in Brazil are no different. In Sochi, latest estimates suggest up to 1,000 families have been mandatorily relocated to accommodate different construction projects for the Games. Given the vastness of the construction needed for the Sochi Olympics, this is understandable (there are many similar precedents, at least) provided the Russian government delivers adequate compensation. But there are documented cases where no compensation—or alternative housing—has been offered to those displaced. When compensation has been offered, it has sometimes been insufficient to rebuy a property in Sochi now that it is an Olympic city. In Sochi, many of the homes and businesses were bought or started in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, meaning owners often have no legal right to compensation. Despite the ballooning costs in every other aspect of the Sochi Games, it seems adequate compensation for forcibly evicted persons is out of the question.
These three reasons are not exhaustive—there are other important issues with regard to Sochi 2014. Each of them plays a part in the increasingly public criticism of Russia’s handling of the Games, yet all of them will likely be forgotten once the Opening Ceremony begins on February 7, 2014.