From reasons such as Russia’s vast economic inequalities to its anti-gay legislation, the Urchin Movement examines why Sochi proved to be the wrong place to host the Winter Olympics and why its repercussions could prove to be much bigger problems than the ones journalists have been tweeting home.
The fairytale spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The rushing (and often crushing) doors of the Moscow Metro trains. The lingering hammer and sickle on imposing public buildings. The otherworldly dancers of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. These memories of Russia are muted next to a single image: two women wrapped in fox and mink, silk and heels, obliviously passing by a toothless grandmother and child on the ground. Begging for acknowledgement along the frenzied Tverskaya Street.
It was a non-event to everyone concerned but myself. In retrospect, those two seconds have formed a visual reference for Russia’s wealth gap and economic inequalities that have plagued it since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Though extreme poverty has lessened some since I visited in 2007, the growing wealth gap in Russia makes America’s Occupy Movement seem a farce.
110 Russian billionaires own 35% of all Russian wealth, compared to the worldwide statistic of billionaires accounting for 1 to 2% of household wealth. A recent Global Wealth Report by Credit Suisse says, ‘Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires.’
Many talk about Russia’s emerging middle class, however the Russian definition vs. the Western definition of middle class is vastly different. The average American household makes $51,017 per year. In Russia, it’s between $12,000 and $30,000 per household not individual.
Despite Russia’s growing wealth due to natural resource development, 18 million Russians live below the poverty line. Apparently trickle-down economics don’t work in Russia, either.
And so we must ask, why does the International Olympic Committee choose nations with vast economic inequalities to host the games? A $50 billion endeavour for Russia, by the way. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development says the cost of the Olympics will do little to boost the Russian economy. The same can be said about Beijing and Athens.
It appears the only gain to be achieved from hosting the Olympics is displaying a strong, impressive image to the world, something President Putin cares about very much. Like the spires of Moscow’s famous landmark, the Olympic effect is nothing more than Putin’s Russian fairytale.
‘The Olympics are a nonpolitical event. They are not a place for the expression of various protests and political views.’ —Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister
‘Sport is intrinsically political.’ —John Amaechi, retired NBA player
Chapter 5, section 50 of the official Olympic charter reads, ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas. […] Any violation of the provisions of the present clause may result in disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned.’
In August 2013, during a qualifying round at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painted her fingernails in rainbow colours during competition. This public display of solidarity with the LGBTQ community at large, but more specifically the oppressed LGBTQ community in Russia, was deemed ‘a breach of regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations.’ Tregaro was forced to repaint them under the threat of disqualification.
Last January, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak named a small park in Khosta a ‘protest zone’ where ‘people will be able to freely express their opinion without breaching the rights of other citizens and without breaching the Olympic charter.’ Khosta, a small, quiet coastal resort town, is roughly 10 miles away from the nearest Olympic stadium in Sochi.
‘It’s possible to travel there by car, by bus or on the train from the center of Sochi, or from the sports center. So if people want to exchange opinions and express their views on any topic, they can do it easily,’ Kozak said, seemingly without an ounce of irony.
Of course, the biggest topic of protest was Russia’s recently passed law prohibiting ‘gay propaganda’, which in effect cinches to a large degree the Russian gay community’s basic human rights, in addition to those of any gay person—athlete or otherwise—visiting or travelling to Sochi. On the day of Sochi’s opening ceremony, four protesters from the gay rights group All Out were arrested in St. Petersburg for attempting to hang a banner that quoted Principle 6 of the very same Olympic charter.
‘Any form of discrimination,’ reads Principle 6, ‘with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.’
Unlike Kozak, All Out did mean more than an ounce of irony in their choice of words. Yet if these so-called offenders took their protest to the so-called protest zone in Khosta, it remains unclear as to whether they would’ve been left alone. According to an NBC News report, ‘activists also need to apply for permission with the authorities’ before staging a demonstration. If a protest wasn’t squashed by authorities, it could’ve been met with opposition from Khosta locals, who never offered nor ever agreed to their town being a protest zone. When news of the assignation first made Khosta, one local had words for Anatoly Pakhomov, the mayor of Sochi: ‘If he designated this area for protests, then we will protest against him.’
Perhaps in all reality, had All Out protested in Khosta, no one would have noticed. And here lies the real offense. In the months leading up to the Sochi games, many people anticipated various forms of protest against Russia’s anti-gay legislation. With Russian officials denigrating the issue of gay civil rights from a human issue to a political issue they were successfully able to sweep its dust under the rug of the Olympic charter while the rest of the world was over for dinner.
Because protesting had in effect been regulated, there is a danger that, with the Sochi games now over, with the cameras packed away and shipped home, Russia’s anti-gay laws will be more in the clear than if we as a world were allowed to discuss the issue, with Russia, together.
During the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, I stayed in a flat with two Russian girls in their mid-twenties who had travelled nearly 4,000 miles to volunteer at Sochi Park. Erected in Hyde Park, Sochi Park was a celebration of Russian culture and a preview of the Olympic city designed to build excitement for the 2014 Winter Games. The girls were so proud. Proud of the exhibition, proud of their country being chosen for the Games, and proud to invite the world to enjoy their culture and heritage.
Two years later, I can’t help but wonder how those girls I spent the summer with feel about all the controversy that has plagued the thing that filled them with so much pride.
From legalised discrimination to the culling of hundreds of stray dogs to a dictator disguised as a democrat, Russia has had a lot to answer for leading up to and during the Games. But they are not the only nation whose narrow-mindedness was highlighted by the Olympics.
Since journalists began arriving in Sochi at the beginning of February, the city’s shoddy facilities and public works failures have become a humourous internet sensation. It all started with BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg’s now-infamous tweet of a double toilet cubicle. Such a sight was surely an anomaly for many, sure. But it just snowballed (Winter Games pun semi-intended) from there.
Suddenly everyone from journalists to athletes was tweeting about not being able to flush toilet paper and being served peas for breakfast. Headlines from BuzzFeed to the Washington Post to NBC read ‘Journalists Are Having A Rotten Time At Sochi, And Their Tweets Are Pretty Funny’; ‘Journalists at Sochi are live-tweeting their hilarious and gross hotel experiences’; and ‘Journalists Take to Social Media With Funny Tweets on Sochi Conditions’.
While Russia clearly failed to deliver their promised facilities, it is unclear why that makes it okay for visitors to make fun of a less-privileged part of the world. There is something decidedly wrong about making fun of cultural normalities/necessities like shared toilets and not being able to flush toilet paper. These things are normal in much of the world and not at all funny.
Why is it suddenly okay to make light of poverty? Because Russia attempts to portray itself as a fully-developed, wealthy society? Discovering the truth of Russia’s facade, and what that means for its citizens should be sobering, not the latest internet meme. The hashtag #sochiproblems has been trending throughout the Games but deals more with hotels without curtains than the 18 million Russians who live below the poverty line, or the fact that someone earning minimum wage in Russia still falls 27 percent below the poverty line.
More than demonstrating Russia’s lack of preparedness, the whole thing really just shows the unacknowledged privilege, insensitivity, and ignorance of the West. And it’s as wrong and embarrassing as Russia’s failure to deliver the Olympics properly.