We could've had Salzburg. But no, the Winter Olympics opens tomorrow in what's proving to be a highly questionable venue.
On the eve of the opening ceremonies, the city hosting the 2014 event is the target of fear, ire, frustration, and outrage. It's worthwhile to ask whether, Olympic competition aside, these games can provide lasting value for the city of Sochi -- or for anyone.
To start at the top: Sochi, Russia, located on the Black Sea, is a city of 350,000 known as "Russia's Riviera" for its mild sub-tropical climate, complete with palm trees. It's also racking up notoriety by the hour for many reasons, including the following:
- Sochi's a target for terrorists. From the outset, Islamist groups in the region have earmarked Sochi for attack during the games (see video below); and other threats, general and specific, have observers and attendees worried about security. A recent CNN poll showed 57% of Americans think it's likely an attack will occur at the games.
- Sochi's a hacker's heaven. This part of the world is notorious for malicious Internet activity, and as one Tweeting journalist put it: "The hackers are out. Leave your sensitive stuff at home." Reports say mob-linked cybercriminals are poised to probe smartphones and other digital devices, adding another layer to security concerns.
- Sochi's central to the world heroin trade. When researching my recent blog on global heroin capitals, Sochi popped up as a crossroads location, even though I chose not to list it in favor of other sites. Indeed, media reports
say Sochi's Olympic status may have been obtained with influence from Gafur Rakhimov, a notorious "heroin kingpin" who was openly thanked by the Russian Olympic Committee for scoring Asian votes for Sochi.
- Sochi's a human rights issue. For months, Russian anti-gay laws have made this city a focal point for protests from gay rights supporters. As Future Cities' Rich Heap pointed out last August, gay activist group All Out staged a massive and unsuccessful campaign to get the International Olympic Committee to move the games out of Sochi. This week, pressure continues from gay rights supporters who oppose Russia's oppressive policies.
- Sochi's an animal rights issue. On top of all its other demerits, Sochi's in the spotlight as a cruelty capital: The Sochi government hired a company to catch and kill thousands of stray dogs with poison and other inhumane means. The situation has raised an outcry from world media and drawn even more attention where Russian President Vladimir Putin wants it least.
- Sochi's just gross. As reporters descended on the city this week, reports surfaced of horrific if hilarious hotel conditions. Broken plumbing, yellow faucet water, no toilet paper, unfinished hotels, a black market forming for amenities like shower curtains... You can read it all on Twitter (see Stacy St. Clair's now-famous tweet below) and in numerous blogs like this one and this "User's Guide to the Bizarre Toilets of Sochi."
Reporter Stacy St. Clair of the Chicago Tribune tweeted her grim encounter with Sochi hotel water.
(Source: @StacyStClair via Twitter)
Can anything good come out of Sochi (besides gold medals, of course)?
The answer depends on your perspective. Russia has reportedly spent over $50 billion -- more than any other Olympic host city ever -- to get the world to Sochi. That will bring in plenty of revenue, and as Ben Wyatt of CNN noted in a lengthy editorial today, the games give Russia a chance to show the world a face it hasn't seen before -- one that isn't grim and "stone-faced." This is a scenario that President Putin, Sochi's citizens, and big sponsors and media companies worldwide are counting on.
But, one has to ask, given the allegations of corrupt financing, just how much Olympic revenue will offset the enormous costs of this project -- and how much will really benefit the Russians who need it. Even Russians doubt the honest funding of the games, according to a recent poll.
Could all the money have been better spent on other ways to help more Russian cities -- ways that guarantee payback to citizens, not politicians and mobsters?
I hope the games in Sochi are a tremendous success. I hope, too, that the issues these games have revealed are addressed by Russia's government in the future, and that doing so will bring Russia further into the fold of societies cooperating for a sustainable and inclusive future for the world's citizens.
I hope that isn't hoping for too much.
— Mary Jander, Managing Editor, UBM's Future Cities