Ottawa Citizen - Published: Monday, July 09, 2007
The International Olympic Committee is acting like an extreme-sports junkie, hooked on the adrenaline of taking big risks. How else to explain its decision to hold the 2014 Winter Games in a volatile part of the world?
The Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi beat Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the privilege of being host to one of the world's biggest events. Sochi is less than half the size of Ottawa and has few sports facilities. It's practically on the border with a separatist Georgian province. It is about as close to the Chechen border as Ottawa is to Toronto.
The IOC likes to pretend its decisions are beyond mere politics; it shrugs off questions about the message it sent -- or didn't send -- to China by choosing to hold the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. It can certainly argue that its main obligation is to put on a safe and successful athletic event. Even by that criterion, though, the Sochi decision looks odd.
The Olympic rings in display in Athens. By awarding the 2014 Games to Sochi, Russia, the International Olympic committee is taking dangerous risks with both the Russian regime and regional instability.
Aris Messinis, AFP/Getty Images
Security is a major consideration for any Olympic event; it will be an overwhelming consideration for this one. Sochi is on the edge of a dangerous global neighbourhood. It's possible the area surrounding Iran and Iraq will be more secure in seven years, but it's also quite likely it won't be. Nobody can predict what Russia's relationship with Chechnya will look like in 2014.
The IOC is naive if it thinks Russia won't use the Sochi Olympics as a symbol of its sovereignty in the area. How could Russia not? That, in turn, will make the Games a target for Islamist terrorists. Canadians love sending their athletes to compete at world events, but security trumps everything.
Russia has already shown an eagerness to politicize the Olympic decision. President Vladimir Putin called the decision "a judgment on our country." Another politician, Boris Gryzlov, went further: "This is a confirmation that the world is not unipolar, that there are forces which support Russia, which is once again becoming a global leader."
It seems Russia's government is more than willing to interpret the Olympic decision as an international thumbs-up on its rights abuses and military posturing. The fact that Russia's last Olympics was boycotted, in 1980, gives extra meaning to the symbol. If this Olympics is a symbol of resurgence, maybe Russia didn't lose the Cold War after all.
Apologists for the Beijing Olympics argue that the increased international attention will cause China to improve its behaviour, at home and abroad. So far the jury's out on that question. The Games seem likely to become a stamp of approval for China's persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, its blind eye to genocide and corruption in Africa, its domestic censorship.
It's possible the Sochi Games could be an incentive for Russia to ensure that the region is peaceful and stable; or it could be an incentive for crackdowns and rights abuses.
What is certain is that the Sochi Olympics will have political consequences, and those consequences might not be positive. It isn't the International Olympic Committee's job to play such a dangerous game.