The Winter Olympics: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

With the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea fast approaching I recount the days when I covered the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Though, not a lot has changed since then.

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Ladies Normal Hill Individual trial at the Russki Gorki Ski Jumping Center on February 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Photo courtesy of: Ezra Shaw

In the press media center, a rather noisy place to begin with, a clamor began to build, the kind which can only be caused by controversy. After a few minutes, certain words began to emerge from the din, the latter two providing the greatest shock: “$51 billion” “unfair results in ice skating,” “doping,” “state-sponsored”.

As Russia’s medal count soared throughout the medal charts — in Sochi Russian athletes won 33 medals, including 13 golds — rumors began circulating about an extensive and ruthless state-run doping scheme program happening in the background. Some journalists had a rough suspicion but no one could prove any of the extremely dangerous accusations. Almost nobody ever really expected that those mere halfway insignificant whisperings would cause an uproar in the media and would lead to the public scandal several months later, showing to the entire planet a good example of the country’s corrosive culture of corruption.

The Good

Four years ago, I embarked on what was going to be one of the most life-changing and rewarding experiences of my life, to work at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. My goal was to soak up all the new information and learn from the press operation team and from all the thousands of journalists from every corner of the globe who’d come to report on the games. To outsiders, Russia can be disorienting even under the best circumstances. For me, this wasn’t a challenge at all, at the time of the games I had been living in the icy country already for almost six years.

When you cover the Olympics everything happens so fast that you don’t even have time to digest certain controversies, you just move on, you literally, move from one venue on to the next one in order to catch up around the hectic schedule. You’re hungry, sleepless, and smelly — since you don’t even have any time at all to shower — but you don’t care, you’re on the latest victory or the most recent medal-hopeful surprise. Every minute that passes you’re witnessing history being made.

“In the Olympics, the media frenzy is so high. You’re constantly jostling elbows with the person next to you in order to get an interview, it’s a nerve-wracking job, one of the greatest ones too” says Owen Gibson, a sports correspondent from The Guardian.

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My accreditation for the Games.

Covering the Olympics is a gruelling task, emotions run high around the many events happening at the same time, so much that journalists get stuck in what has been defined as an “Olympic Bubble”. They usually have several goals in mind: the games, the athletes, the rivalries and narratives and such, so often they leave out meaningful stories and incredible moments.

In my case, it was different. Since I spoke Russian I mingled with the locals and stayed away from the foreign premises. For me, one of the most notorious gains and from the big multi-sports event was the cultural interchange between the workers from the organizing committee as well as students, like me, some of whom were volunteering, all of these committed-hard-working individuals converged in Sochi for their passion for the Olympic movement and their love for sports.

As Nikolay Kondakov, current Photo Manager at Pyeongchang, in South Korea, puts it “you meet a lot of new people from all over the world and most of them are sharing the same ideals.”

In fact, volunteers were the main attraction of the games. Dressed in explosive rainbow uniforms, they were charming, determined, euphoric, young, thoughtful, and surprisingly — according to Russian standards — quite funny and cheerful. They worked hard and kept the wheels spinning around the clock. Russia invested a lot of money in them, when I first came to Russia back in 2008, the country didn’t have a large volunteer culture, in less than three years, the volunteering movement around the games grew dramatically.

One of the biggest takeaways from Sochi were the venues. They were top class, well-designed and best of all up to this day, they are still being used to hold other sports competitions like: F1 Grand Prix, The Hockey World cup and the upcoming, FIFA world cup. At the end, the games committed to one of its purposes and became high followed since it was broadcast worldwide to a record 102,000 hours of coverage to 464 channels across the globe.

Eventually, the games come down to every particular story each one ought to tell, as Arina Birstein, Deputy Director for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Bid/Organizing Committee says “The biggest challenge in covering the Olympics is to make your story different. Everyone talks about ratings, results, stadiums, athletes etc… but there is always something else that makes every Games experience unique, you just need to sense and find it. It’s about finding and sharing your story.”

The Bad

Russia, which is a country known for its famous wintery landscapes made a very strange decision: to host the games in a subtropical Black Sea resort town in the south-western part of the country. I remember how moisty and warm the winter was. Snow was a precious commodity. In a desperate attempt to put the city of Sochi on the map organizers faced a gargantuan task, to supply the games with enough snow. Four years later, the attempt hasn’t really pay off either, and the city still struggles dauntingly to draw tourists to the area, merely attracting high middle class nationals since the destination it’s way too pricey for the majority of Russians.

There’s something incredible about sports, one thing that I learned was how the Olympics have the ability to re-energize a nation, create a deep feeling of national pride and help boost the economy of the host city. Well, at least those are some of the goals the organizing committees go after, mainly pushed by the International Olympic Committee questionable promises for the 17-day sporting extravaganza. However, scholarly research has found that long-term economic benefits are difficult to identify. Some even have argued that the current state of the Greek economy can be traced back to the massive debt left by the 2004 Olympics. The only city who has benefited widely from it has been Barcelona, a city that wasn’t really on the map before the Olympics as a European destination.

At the end, host cities, and its citizens are the most affected by the abyss of excess, communities are left with bunch of sports facilities crumbling in abandonment. Whether they like it or not, the International Olympic Committee are the only ones to blame, they are the ones imposing a series of absurd demands, which ends up sending the economy of the host country into a black hole. The perfect scenario for dubious cost overruns and outright embezzlement. But, why are taxpayers the ones footing the excessive bills? For Sochi this represented 96% of the tab, according to The Economist, the IOC’s contract with host cities includes a taxpayer guarantee, which puts them on the hook for overruns.

For Sochi, this wasn’t an exemption, in fact, the games were the most expensive ever staged. Russia poured an estimated $51 billion into revamping the beach town a world-class ski resort, much of that money seems to have gone straight into corrupt executives’ pockets linked to Putin as they according to a report.

The Ugly

Olympics games have always been hugely political, even when the IOC continuously tells us otherwise. In Sochi, we experienced one of the most controverted games in history, we had it all: human rights violations, animal cruelty, anti-LGBT remarks and policies, huge environmental disasters, corruption and the biggest of them all, the doping scandal.

Russia blatantly organized and sponsored one of the biggest and most elaborated doping cover-ups in history. On May 2016, New York Times Rebecca R. Ruiz and Michael Schwirt uncovered the extended modus operandi of the doping state-sponsored system. According to whistle-blowers such as Grigory Rodchenkov, the staggering amount of 99% of athletes that were receiving the doping cocktails. Even IOC president Thomas Bach has said Russia’s cheating displayed an “unprecedented level of criminality.

“Sport is war minus the shooting” George Orwell

There’s this naive understanding that sport creates a goodwill between the participating nations, but nothing could be further from the truth. Like George Orwell wrote on his essay “The Sporting Spirit”, “if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”

Conversely, Jonathan Grix and Donna Lee, the authors of “Soft Power, Sports Mega-Events and Emerging States,” wrote also that “by hosting international sporting events countries can show the world that they are guardians of universal norms and, in so doing, can construct attraction by illuminating truths such as fair play that have universal appeal”

The Future of the Games

Sports mega-events, like the Olympic movement, need reinvention to its core and to go back to their origins in order to reinvigorate and revitalize The Games making its upcoming editions more sustainable, compact and environmentally friendly. The current business model is untenable. Nothing has changed so far, even for South Korea. No need to belabor the obvious, the games need to reform themselves if they want countries to bid in the future, no wonder Stockholm, Oslo, Krakow in Poland and Lviv in Ukraine had all withdrawn their bids alleging that the cost will run up much higher than they were anticipating.

Solutions do exist though, for starters the IOC could downsize the number of venues and costs by designating one or a few permanent host cities with existing facilities, so the infrastructure has a sustainable operational use.

The IOC needs to protect potential bidders from the pitfalls of the extravagant event by helping come up with plans to find productive uses for the venues built so they don’t become huge deteriorating white elephants. In addition, they could provide the host country assistance to help cities re-purpose or dismantle the venues just as London did, and as Pyeongchang will do with its Olympic stadium. A financial safety net should be implemented as well to account for the long-term effects that may arise.

Sports events have become so corrupted that unfortunately it has nothing to do with the feats athleticism and the sportsmanship that it was before, but everything to do with money, sponsors, hopes for a PR triumphs, and international prestige.

Countries need to work together and establish clear and transparent procedures to ensure fair play and clean competitions. Countries need to place along with sports federations adequate anti-doping systems and policies to promote fair play, clean athletes and the authenticity and integrity of each sport.

The beauty of the games are the stories behind athlete, their sport prowess, their dogged determination and ground-breaking endeavors. Sports can bring a world of all kinds of cultures and races together as one, representing through the power of athletics and unity, as Nikolay says “Despite all recent contradictions of Olympic movement, the games are still uniting mankind. The spirit of the games promotes ideals of peace and cooperation. This new edition of the games will bring the two Koreas a little closer to each other, and that is one of the best examples of that spirit.”

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