The Sochi Olympic Games are rightly highlighting the constellation of abuses that have become standard in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Most notably is intense, often violent homophobia, tacitly endorsed by the government with the recent passage of the law against “gay propaganda.” While Sochi shines a light on Russian human-rights violations, it affords an opportunity to expose the rampant corruption and abuse that accompanies the International Olympic Committee.
I first personally experienced the corrupting influence of the Olympics when attempting a routine entry into Canada, to give a talk at the Vancouver Public Library in November 2009. Two colleagues and I were ordered out of our car by the Canadian border guards. I was interrogated at length, as other guards busily rifled our car. They wanted to know the topics of my talk. I told them I would talk about the importance of an independent media, about the Obama administration’s war in Afghanistan, its efforts to derail to the U.N. climate negotiations and more.
“Are you planning on speaking about the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver?” The thought hadn’t entered my mind, at least until the interrogation. My detention became a national story across Canada. In order to host the Olympics, cities have to buckle under the IOC’s strict rules, and governments have to provide enormous public subsidies, primarily for sports stadiums and other construction projects that are paid for but often unwanted by the local citizens. To force this boondoggle on the public, the IOC and host governments crack down on dissent.
In Putin’s increasingly totalitarian Russia, the repression is even greater, as is the plunder of the public coffers. The low estimates put the cost of the Sochi Games at $51 billion, more than four times the estimated cost and, remarkably, more than the cost of all previous Winter Olympics combined, as reported by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Political sportswriter Dave Zirin told me: “One road from the Olympic Village to the top of the ski mountain is going to cost $8.7 billion. Not only is that more than the entire price tag for the Vancouver Games, but they could have paved the entire road in Beluga caviar, and it would have cost less.” Zirin reported that at least 25 workers were killed during the frantic race to finish the construction in Sochi. While workers suffer, Zirin says the beneficiaries of the largess are “a combination of the Russian state and the Russian plutocracy.”
Along with Putin and the plutocrats, the Olympics are a marketing bonanza for multinational corporations. The U.S. Olympic Committee boasts among its corporate sponsors Dow Chemical, GE, McDonald’s, Budweiser and BP. Samantha Retrosi was recruited at the age of 11 during the “Verizon-USA Luge Slider Search,” and competed with the U.S. Olympic luge team at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy. “Corporate sponsorship is of paramount necessity,” she told us on the “Democracy Now” news hour. “There’s no government support for luge or any other Olympic sport. Essentially, the system is entirely privatized … as a U.S. national team athlete, I signed a contract every year with the U.S. Luge Association, and that contract stipulated what I could and couldn’t say. Essentially, I was being trained to be a spokesperson for Verizon.” While Verizon no longer sponsors the U.S. luge team, the dependence on corporate sponsorship remains.
On the issue of gay rights, President Barack Obama is making a statement against Putin by not attending, instead sending several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes on the official U.S. delegation. Tennis legend Billie Jean King was appointed, but can’t attend due to her mother’s illness. When asked about the prospect of protests at the Sochi games, King told CBS: “They’re not supposed to protest or demonstrate. And if they do, they can have their medals stripped, and they can be sent home. But I also think some of the athletes will probably have their say. … I would do something.”
Speaking out in Russia can bring serious consequences. The activist punk band Pussy Riot played a musical, anti-Putin statement in Moscow, and two of its members were thrown into prison for 21 months. Just released, they are now visiting the U.S. with Amnesty International. One of the band members, Maria Alyokhina, told me at their first U.S. news conference: “We would like for Americans to really look at Russia and see Russia beyond the images of Olympic objects and buildings. … The only thing which connects these objects to the country is taxpayer money, which has been stolen.”
The Pussy Riot band members are taking a courageous stand against Putin. But they are also taking a stand here, planning to visit at least one U.S. prison. They will then head back to Russia. As Zirin said, “In a sane world, Pussy Riot would be playing the opening ceremonies at the Sochi 2014 Olympics.”
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