Sochi Olympics: The lingering lesson

In his latest Field of Play blog, Scott Russell says Sochi, Russia is a perfect example of what happens when countries allow the Olympics to be hijacked by national pride.

Winter Games hijacked by national pride

Figure skater Evgeny Plushenko, right, returned to lead Russia to gold in the inaugural team event and ignited a nation in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the smell of corruption was pervasive in light of the gigantic cost of building the miraculous infrastructure in Sochi. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

I can distinctly remember the night the flame went out in Sochi. I was walking through the Olympic Park, buried in the massive crowd and chatting with a Russian security guard who happened to be an avid hockey fan.

“Your players are great,” he offered in perfect English. “It’s because the Canadians always play like a team.”

Turns out he was a lot like me.

He reveled in the intangible but omnipresent Olympic spirit that night. 

I could tell he was proud of what had taken place in his home country over a period of 17 bewildering, and at times, magical days. But I’m sure he was thinking, as he watched the workers who were already busily tearing down much of the Games façade…what comes next?

It’s only natural to think this way when any long anticipated party is over and I found myself overcome with the very same sentiment. 

What indeed, comes next?

No concept

Until the official handover at the close of the Vancouver/Whistler Games in 2010 I had no clue where Sochi was. Even after I visited there a year in advance of the 2014 Olympics, I had no concept or any real faith that a sub-tropical place on the Black Sea could possibly stage a multi-sport spectacle of this magnitude. There was certainly no winter sports tradition there. All I found was rain, muck and a construction site out of which these fantastic venues had strangely appeared.

When I returned a year ago in advance of the Opening Ceremony, I was greeted by “Disneyland for the Olympics.” It was impressive to say the least. Lights, crowds, palm trees, ideal weather on the coast and plenty of snow in the Krasnaya Polyana which loomed on the not too distant horizon. 

Still, the whole scene had the feel of a temporary arrangement and you wondered aloud how much substance there was to Sochi.

There was a price to pay for all this, of course…$51 Billion US to be exact. They amounted to the most expensive Olympics of any kind in history, far exceeding the cost of even Beijing in 2008.

The smell of corruption was pervasive in light of the gigantic cost of building the miraculous infrastructure. Fear ran rife because of Russia’s impending military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine.  Intolerance hung over proceedings like a dark cloud given Russia’s anti-gay legislation.

Still, Vladimir Putin, the country’s president, who conceived of these unlikely Olympics as a vanity project, puffed out his chest and beamed at what Sochi and all of Russia had been able to achieve.

From an athlete’s point of view there was little to quibble with. The facilities and housing were first-rate and the conditions for competition were impeccable. For the most part the Games were well organized and logistics nearly flawless.

The athletic performances were memorable. 

Biathlon’s Ole Einar Bjorndalen of Norway won two titles and thus became the most decorated winter Olympian of all time with 13 medals over the course of a remarkable career. Marie-Philip Poulin scored the tying and winning goals in Canada’s thrilling victory over the United States in women’s hockey. One of the greatest figure skaters of all time, Evgeny Plushenko, returned to lead Russia to gold in the inaugural team event and ignited the Iceberg Skating Palace in the process. 

The Dufour-Lapointe sisters of Canada, Justine and Chloe, conjured up gold and silver medals in freestyle skiing and stole hearts as the sibling story of Sochi.

Paralympics best to date

The 2014 edition of the Paralympic Winter Games turned out to be the biggest and best to date. There were more athletes, more sports and more accessible venues than ever before in a country not known for behaving in a progressive fashion towards its disabled citizens. Russia won 80 medals at the Paralympics, including 30 gold and the crowds were huge.

All of this became a source of immense pride for Russia.

But, then the Games left town and Sochi has since reverted to its sporting anonymity. Many of the venues are empty.

“Disneyland for the Olympics” is no longer a source of amusement. 

In light of the Sochi experience the painfully slow wheels of Olympic reform have been set in motion. The charter now guarantees rights to all athletes regardless of sexual orientation. The outrageous costs to stage the Games, which Sochi unquestionably fueled, are at long last acknowledged as a detriment to the bidding process. Provisions have been made to allow for multi-city, even multi-country host propositions in the future.

But the lingering asterisk of Sochi may be a recurring one which will come to challenge the Olympic movement for generations to come. 

Simply put, Sochi is what happens when countries allow the Olympics to be hijacked by national pride. Russia is merely the most recent and arguably the most flagrant offender. If this situation is allowed to prevail there will unavoidably be the perplexing question of what comes next?

This is the great conundrum of the Olympics. 

What we should be remembering a year after the Games are over is not the host city and all of the excess required to put on a lavish side show for a couple of weeks. Instead we should recall the lasting and landmark performances of the athletes regardless of national origin.           

They alone should remain the pride of the Olympic movement. 


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