Like many other big countries, the USA has a kind of sports embassy on the grounds of the Olympic Park in Sochi. Calling it an embassy is a little deceiving, though, as USA house is really a place to hang out, get free American-ish food (the Russian version of a quesadilla), drink Budweiser, and watch the feed of American Olympians competing. It feels like a sports bar where everyone is cheering for your team. Since Day One of the Olympics, I have been there nearly every day.
The most unlikely of visitors came in last Friday. First I noticed a group of burly, suit-wearing Russians with earpieces standing outside the House. Then, when I walked in, no less that six people took my photo. I would soon realize that the anticipation of this special visitor had people so trigger happy that they were photographing everyone who entered in order to not miss catching the big fish.
I asked some people who worked at the house what was going on, and they gave me vague answers. I decided to post up in the front to see who this guest of honor would be. My boyfriend looked at me and said “Do you think it could be?” Knowing whom he meant, I said “No way, he would never come here.” I was wrong.
And there he was, the man himself, the king of Sochi, Mr. Vladimir Putin, strolling right into USA House
with no less than a twenty-person security detail, dwarfing the strong man of petite stature (he’s 5’7”). I had heard others speak about the gravitas of his person, and sure enough, he had every eye in the house on him.
This was the man who is single handedly responsible for staging an Olympic Games in the warmest, poorest and most geopolitically fraught region of Russia, for upwards of $50 billion. Still, you couldn’t tell if his power came from his stature, or vice versa.
He stayed for about twenty minutes, chatting with the head of the United States Olympic Committee, Scott Blackmun and Chairman Larry Probst as a camera crew filmed the whole thing.
— Saree Kayne for KCRW (Photo above: President Vladimir Putin enters the room. The author’s boyfriend managed to snap this photo of Putin the foreground and the author, blurry, to the far left)
The pressure on the men to win an independent Russia’s first gold medal on home soil was greater than anything faced by the United States in 2002 or Canada in 2010.
“Our fans are a little bit tougher, I think,” Sergei Fedorov, a forward on the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams, had said recently. “They don’t like when the national team loses.”
(Photo via Flickr by rapidtravelchai/ CC)
The Sochi Olympics have been plagued by questions from the start. Gay rights, press rights, rights of protest — not to mention will there even be enough hotel rooms. Well, the games officially began Thursday, and the Opening Ceremony starts at 20:14 Friday in Sochi, 11 a.m. on the US east coast.
Why was Sochi, a warm, summer seaside resort on the Black Sea with little existing infrastructure or snow chosen? At $51 billion, it’s the most expensive winter games in history, though there’s been some criticism of using that figure. Reports of unfinished hotel rooms, the culling of stray dogs and undrinkable water have been common, further supporting the view that much of the $51 billion was spent not on construction and infrastructure but disappeared in bribes and kickbacks to Russian officials.
Edward Lozansky, founder and President of the American University in Moscow, however, thinks the criticisms and dismissive comments are overblown. He says the western media has launched a “vicious, often hypocritical and extremely biased campaign against Sochi and Russia in general.” Specifically, he says the media is too focused on the treatment of gay people and the threat of terrorism.
“This is a strange phenomenon when we have different people pushing negative Sochi stories: the neo-cons on the right and the liberal media on the left,” he says. “one group worried about terrorists and the other about LGBT issues.
“I don’t recall another Olympics where the media is digging so much for horror stories. 99 percent of the stories out of Sochi have been horror stories and it reminded me of Soviet style media,” he adds.
Lozansky sees the $51 billion as a necessary, “huge investment for the people to create jobs and employment” in a much-needed region. He adds that only a strong economy can bring opportunity, rather than strife, to the troubled southern part of Russia.
Some of his criticism is directed specifically at the Washington Post, which he says “has been overflowing in anti-Sochi venom in its coverage of the Olympics” and suggested “the IOC made a gross mistake in awarding the games to Russia.” He says the Post essentially blames the IOC if any terror attack were to happen. Should we, under threat of Islamic terrorism, “cancel all athletic and cultural events?” he asks.
As the global spotlight shines on Russia for the next two weeks, Lozansky would have like to see a show of solidarity with the Russian people. “The Olympics are an important event diplomatically, an opportunity for people to talk on the sidelines and provide moral support by attending the games,” he says. It’s important, he says, if the west actually wants to help Russia move to a more open, inclusive society.
Rebuffing Putin’s Russia will “only cause Russia to look further eastwards rather than embrace the west,” Lozansky says. “I would much rather see Russia in the American tent that in the China tent.”
— Andrea Brody, producer To the Point
Listen to more here:
President Obama won’t be on the scene for the Winter Olympics, but there’s a lot at stake in Sochi for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The opening ceremonies are tomorrow, but qualifying events began today. We get updates on those and on the many controversies surrounding the most expensive Olympics in history. Listen to today’s To the Point.
Today Russian president Vladimir Putin attempted to clarify his position on gay rights in Russia, saying that his country doesn’t criminalize gay relationships. He told the press: "That’s why you can feel safe and free here, but please leave our children in peace." A Russian law makes it illegal to tell children about gay equality.
Facing international criticism for his crackdown on Russia’s gay community ahead of the Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin recently pardoned 20,000 political prisoners, including two members of the protest band Pussy Riot.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they were released solely because of the Sochi Olympics, as was Mikhail Khodorkovsky as were the greenpeace activists - the 30 people who were kidnapped in September in international waters ” said journalist, Masha Gessen, who recently left the country because she, like many, felt targeted targeted by the violent campaign against gays and lesbians.
Gessen is an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin and had unique access to the protest band for her latest book, “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.”
“I think Pussy riot expresses something that is quite deep seeded and quite common among people. Their form of protest is extreme,” said Gessen. After performing a protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 2012, two members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two year terms in prison on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. “The protest was made specifically at the symbiosis of church and state, this made a lot of people uncomfortable even the anti-putin side of the spectrum which is exactly what makes them outstanding artists and outstanding protest artists in particular.”
In the lead up to the trial, Gessen said attitudes about the group changed dramatically. “It was fascinating to watch people challenge their assumptions and come full circle to thinking from thinking that protesting inside a church was inappropriate to thinking it was the right thing to do. I think that protest art that has that kind of effect on people is pretty remarkable.”
Despite the release of political prisoners, and the increasing attention on Sochi ahead of the games, Gessen is pessimistic about Russia’s future. “I think the crackdown we have seen leading up to the Sochi Olympics over the last 2 years may start to seem like child’s play after the games,” she said.