Political, cultural tensions return to Olympic stage in advance of Sochi
LONDON -- Big picture, it had been a dismal two weeks for the touchy old bear. America and China traded great-power glory and the gold-medal lead almost daily at the 2012 Olympics, and the Brits reveled in their bewildering new status as an international sporting force. Even North Korea seemed to be having something resembling fun. But Russia?
"Of course we're not happy with our swimming team; they didn't win even one gold," said Russia Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov early Saturday afternoon. "We're not very happy with fencing, because we have [a] very strong team, lot of world and European champions -- also no golds. Silver, bronze: That's not what we expected. And we are not very happy with weightlifting because we had four or five world leaders, and we won just silver, lots of silver -- and lost three gold medals to Kazakhstan!"
Such failure, it seems, just isn't acceptable. Because within hours of Zhukov's lament, as suddenly as a sunrise breaking over the steppes, all of Russia got happy -- fast. Russian athletes began walking, running, leaping and paddling to victory late Saturday afternoon, winning six gold medals and 15 overall to ensure a comfy lead on Great Britain in the final overall -- if not gold -- medal count, produce their best day of these Games and give the 10,000 people packed, later that night, before a stage in London's Kensington Gardens something grand to cheer.
And so they did: After 20 Russian medal winners, including Saturday's newly-minted rhythmic gymnastics champ Evgeniya Kanaeva, walked out grinning, they were met with a chant of "Mo-lod-tsy!" Confused English speakers were given differing meanings -- everything from "Good boy" to "Well Done" -- but the next one needed no translation.
"Rus-Si-A!" the throng shouted even louder. "Rus-Si-A!"
Get used to the sound of that. With the Olympics now turning its attention to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, every variation of Russian pride, prejudice, joy and fear promises to be on loud display for the next 18 months, and the Games' short vacation from political and cultural tension figures to be over. Both London and Vancouver, in 2010, served as a respite for the IOC after China flouted its pledge to improve human rights by the 2008 Games in Beijing, but President Vladimir Putin's hardline rule -- not to mention his bare-chested support of the Sochi Games -- is sure to have Olympic critics back on high alert.
"We were disappointed in how the human rights situation in Beijing and in China deteriorated during and after the Games," said Jane Buchanan, a senior researcher on Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch (HRW). "The IOC had a responsibility then, and we're not going to give up. Sochi will be next, and we really think the IOC -- as it has on issues like the environment, like doping -- can and will reform and see the importance of these issues and their direct relevance to the Olympic charter.
"Russia has a very deep and serious human rights problem, and it's gotten markedly worse since Putin came back to the presidency a few months ago -- increasing restrictions on freedom of assembly and [non-government organizations] and the way they operate, in particular NGOs that criticize the government. That space is tightening even further."
The most obvious example, of course, is the current Moscow trial of Pussy Riot -- a feminist punk band whose prosecution for performing an anti-Putin song in a cathedral dominated the news out of Russia during the Games. But HRW issued a report before the London Olympics alleging intimidation of Russian media trying to report on abuses, like the forced relocation of thousands of residents and exploitation of migrant workers, in the massive build-up of Olympic venues and infrastructure in Sochi. The fact that Putin has been personally involved in the Sochi bid from the start (organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko famously called the Sochi Olympics Putin's "baby" after they were awarded in 2007) will make the space between the Olympics and its host regime even slimmer than it was in the years leading up to Beijing.
"It's his personal commitment, because it's all for the people of Russia," Chernyshenko said Saturday of Putin's role. "And the outcome is incredible: It's like our lottery ticket, our miracle button. [We thought], now that we have obtained the right to host the Games we should use this opportunity -- in full swing -- to capitalize on it. And I'm happy to say that with 545 days to the Games, we can already conclude that we have achieved some tangible and intangible legacy which would've never happened if we didn't host the Games."
A source close to the Russian delegation said that there were, indeed, instances of sub-contractors hired under the umbrella of Olimpstroi -- the government corporation responsible for delivering the majority of the major venues and infrastructure projects for Sochi 2014 -- who abused vulnerable migrant laborers. And Chernyshenko admits that confusion over Soviet-era housing assignments helped muddy the relocation of some residents, but says that Sochi 2014's ground-clearing policy is more flexible than the measures used by London before these Games. Some relocated residents, he said, have actually gone from dingy near-shacks to homes worth $1,000,000.
"You should come and see it," Chernyshenko said. "It's new houses. My parents don't have such a quality of houses."
Chernyshenko also said that Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the IOC coordination commission for Sochi 2014, has been in touch with residents with grievances, and is "absolutely confident" that Killy will find the process "very fair." Outgoing IOC president Jacques Rogge confirmed Sunday that the IOC had been having "ongoing discussions" with HRW about Sochi.
"The position of the International Olympic Committee on human rights is a very clear one: Whenever these human rights touch an issue of the Games organization, we ask the local government to remedy and to find solutions to improve that," Rogge said. "We are not for general issues like whether there should be a death penalty or not. These are issues where the sports movement has no place because we are not equipped to follow that.
"But when it comes to issues like the work conditions of workers at Olympic venues? Yes. The fight against child labor for manufacturers of sports equipment? Yes. The correct compensation for expropriations and relocations of people? Yes. For these kind of things, we want to follow up together with the NGOs responsible for that."
But, Chernyshenko said, when it comes to some relocated residents in Sochi -- estimates of those affected range up to 4,000 -- "some people are never happy: They were trying to earn even more money and start to attract the International Olympic Committee or Human Rights Watch, complaining, 'Oh, we were badly treated, because my mother didn't have the right to this plot but we were living there and they withdraw us and we want not this compensation, we want that!'"
He's dismissive but, then, Chernyshenko feels he has the right to be. In its dedication to building green and open-access for the disabled, its push to establish volunteerism, its enforcement of smoke-free environments, the Sochi organizers have already affected a broader culture, he said, that had never prized any of those ideas. The venues, the scenery, the Games promise to be spectacular. That a leafy resort town will be transformed -- for good and bad -- by the process is but a small price to pay.
"Sochi has a mission to be the model city for all the country to follow, in environmentally friendly construction," Chernyshenko said. "It's still the biggest construction site in the world -- 60,000 workers, 24-7. Can you imagine seven thousand heavy trucks and a thousand cranes? Without very strong measures it would be impossible to protect nature. But once we successfully adopted this in Sochi, we implemented it all around the country."
Thus have the essential battle lines, the competing narratives, been laid down for the next Olympic year and a half. On one side stands the Putin government's message of opportunity, its tale of a nation seeking stability and just starting to mature.
"These are our first Games," Chernyshenko said. "Previous one was in USSR; it was a different time and it was boycotted. For us this is a unique opportunity to break the stereotypes and tell the world our story -- that Russia has a new face, it's a new modern country with proper laws, with freedom for the media and with human rights. There is some criticism, and so on, but when the people, my friends, come to Russia, they can really learn that we change a lot. Russia deserves to be re-explored."
On the other side is the view of the outsider, those cut out of the circle of power or critiquing from far away. "You can't have a successful Olympics if it's built on the basis of human rights abuses," Buchanan said. But that depends on one's idea of "success". As London, Vancouver and certainly Beijing have shown, the legacy is the same regardless of nation or political system. If the home team wins, almost nothing else matters.