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Can the Games Begin? :: Putin’s Folly?

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Feb 6, 2014

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a four part series about the 2014 Sochi Olympics. This feature can be read in full in EDGE's iPad magazine.

Even if the Winter Games go off without a hitch, Sochi has already become a public relations nightmare for the Russian government, which is getting hit from all sides.

The construction of the Olympic venues in and around Sochi had been wrapped in controversy since its inception. Critics roundly criticized the way the Russian government has steamrolled over environmental regulations to construct the venues.

It's bad enough that Putin chose an area that sits on the same latitude as the French Riviera and was heretofore known as a beach resort more popular for sun bathing than ice skating. Thanks to widespread bribery, kickbacks, payback to Putin himself and good-old Russian rank incompetence, the Sochi Games will go down in history as the most expensive Games in history. How expensive: More than every single previous Winter Olympics combined.

That's a lot of rubles -- $55 billion in our currency, and that's not counting the extraordinary cost of security during the Games themselves, expected to run into the billions. Some say the cost is actually somewhere around $70 billion. This, in a nation that cannot pay for basic services for much of the country.

The cost of the highway and railway from Sochi to the mountain venues is so expensive that one magazine estimated that the price tag is comparable to paving the entire roadway with mink fur. Another road ended up costing so much the same magazine estimated it's equal to every inch being covered with foie gras nine inches high. That's a lot of goose liver!

You'd think all of that money would at least have resulted in top-notch construction. But observers universally have condemned the buildings housing events and participants as shoddy at best, downright dangerous at worst. Not only that, but in the rush to complete construction, demotion crews reportedly worked so fast that in some cases, they actually bulldozed buildings while people were not only living there but still in them at the time.

Even if there are not terrorist disruptions during the Games -- and no one, certainly not this writer, hopes for that -- they're operating under the very large cloud of a local terrorist movement that has widespread support and that has already caused major incidents in nearby cities.

Even Putin, mighty as he is, can’t control the weather. We’ll soon find out if this will be, as many predict, the warmest Winter Olympics on record. February temperatures routinely reaching 62 degrees in the region. In Russia, people are calling this the "first Spring Olympics."

If Putin thought pardoning members of Pussy Riot would put him in a good light, it had the opposite effect when the three members of the punk-rock group slammed the premier. Just to show how innovative Russian avant-garde artists are in their protests, a gay man nailed his scrotum to the ground in the kind of stunt guaranteed to ensure international media coverage.

Chances are good that there will no balls-to-the-wall in Sochi. Putin has made the entire area a security zone and surrounded it with a cordon sanitaire such as that it will be interesting to see how he plans to fill the seats, since ordinary Russians have been discouraged, to say the least, from attending.

In late December, an article in the San Francisco Inquirer summed up the situation with the headline "Gay activists get ready for tough sledding at Winter Olympics." "U.S. gay rights activists," read the lead sentence, "buoyed by their unprecedented political successes in 2013, are gearing up to make an international statement at the Winter Olympics in Russia -- but know that speaking out against new antigay laws there may be more difficult than anything they faced in America."

The article went on to note that few activists will actually be in Sochi, and Russian activists already have a plate that is more than full and that the U.S. State Department cannot promise to help anyone arrested there. Nonetheless, people like Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are encouraging activists to go anyway.

The State Department not only issued a general travel warning to LGBT Americans, but it made a point of telling attendees to steer clear of protests, which, the statement read, "can develop quickly and unpredictably, sometimes turning violent."

The only thing that is certain for now is that it should be an interesting Olympic Games.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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