When Sochi was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2007, the sporting world knew the choice came with plenty of risks. The location was remote. The climate was not only erratic; it could well be balmy in February. And then there was the host country, the mercurial and occasionally repressive Russia. Who knew what Moscow would do with another Olympics?
Of course, the world was a different place seven years ago, and so the Games went to Sochi. BRIC fever was intense. Central Asia was opening up. Russia seemed enthusiastic about democracy, and Vladimir Putin seemed to be edging out of politics. Most importantly, the world was tilting to new corners, such as the Black Sea, and new ways of living, governing and playing. Why not Sochi?
With the 2014 Games now behind us, we can begin to ask again, Why not Sochi? And more to the point, did the International Olympic Committee choose wisely? And did the Russians, under Mr. Putin, serve well as guardians of the Olympic flame and its ideals?
To Russia’s credit, the Games were staged well. The opening and closing ceremonies were magnificent -- projections of Russian art, culture and creativity that should continue to inspire the country and the world. As for security, despite global jitters about terrorism threats, nothing emerged. The only documented violence was toward the stray dogs of Sochi, and they seem to have been cared for in the end.
For the athletes, the indoor facilities lived up to their promise, while the ski hills and tracks were as good as one could expect given that the location was Russia’s version of the tropics. Canadians well remember our own snow crisis in Vancouver in 2010, and how we pulled it off. Credit the Russians for doing the same.
On the snow and ice, the events themselves were spectacular, thanks to organizers, volunteers and above all the world’s athletes. Who will forget the stunning Norwegian and Russian cross-country ski victories? Or the extraordinary thrills of our mogul skiers? New figure skating stars thrilled a planet of TV viewers. And of course, we were given two excellent hockey tournaments, with a quality of play that will remain the standard, for men and women.
Despite the early exit of their men’s hockey team, Russians should take pride in their Olympians, who won the most medals, including the most gold. They have left the country a very good legacy.
That’s where our praise stops. The Games never overcame Russia’s unacceptable position on gay rights or its ambivalence to the right and privilege of Olympians to compete, and celebrate, without fear or humiliation.
Perhaps the world’s presence, and the global debate about Russian laws and values, will help Russian lawmakers advance their interpretation of democracy and human rights. Perhaps.
Away from Russian soil, as if by some cosmic design, Ukraine’s pro-Putin autocracy collapsed before the world’s eyes while the Games were underway. The Russian president looked alternately inept and ruthless – and nothing like the sort of world leader the Olympics should celebrate. We should not forget the power that autocrats like to draw from the Olympics, nor should we apologize for demanding better of them.
What is less negotiable is the monstrous bill that the people of Russia have been saddled with. We’re all for the Olympics being a benevolent force in the construction of world-class athletic facilities in every corner of the world, to allow humans everywhere to both strive for excellence and enjoy watching others strive to achieve it.
But no athletic or cultural ambition for the people of Southern Russia was ever priced at $50 billion, and it will be a burden for a generation to come. In the worrisome inflation of Olympic costs, Sochi blew the roof off.
Russia is not a wealthy country: It has more than four times the population of Canada, but its economy is no larger than ours. The overspending was grotesque, and to make matters worse, these new, gold-plated facilities are located thousands of kilometers from the country’s major population centres. It would be like Canada deciding to sink billions into making Rouyn-Noranda the capital of North American winter sports.
As IOC members head home, they should pause for some honest conversations about the scope of the Games, and how the Olympic movement should do everything to ensure it is not a burden on host countries.
In 2016, our summer eyes will shift to Brazil. And then, in 2018, our winter athletes will be back at it again, in South Korea. With the right lessons from Sochi, the Olympics can remain a force for global good, as well as athletic achievement.
Until then, the Russian people who hosted the world, and competed in front of it, deserve our thanks for overcoming the burdens of their time and staging a memorable Games. To them, spasiba.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Sochi was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2006. This version has been corrected.