Written by Ray N. Olsen, Member of the International Society of Olympic Historians
The U.S. State Department has issued an unusually long and comprehensive alert for travelers to the Sochi Olympics. This update of threats and concerns should be of interest to anyone interested in the outcome of the 2014 Games, which start on February 7.
The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens planning to attend the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia that they should remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times. The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens planning to attend the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia that they should remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times. The Olympic and Paralympic Games will take place in Sochi, Russia, from February 7 to March 16, 2014. This travel alert replaces the alert issued on January 10, 2014, and provides updated information on reported threats against the Games. It expires on March 24, 2014. Full information about the Olympic and Paralympic games for U.S. citizen visitors is available on the Sochi Fact Sheet and the Country Specific Information for the Russian Federation on our website, travel.state.gov. The Department strongly recommends that all U.S. citizens residing or traveling abroad enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to receive pertinent safety and security information.
What it does not include is the whole historical background of the region and the impact of current internal politics and corruption. This first started with the widespread massacres of the local Muslims by the Russian Czars when they took over the territories in the 1800s, including deporting whole populations in the greater Sochi areas by shipping them to Turkey and throwing many of them overboard on the way. This Russian domination continued under Stalin, of course, and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new personal interest in the area has been demonstrated by the current national supreme leader, Vladimir Putin, over the last ten years.
He personally discovered the potential of the winter sports area in the mountains above Sochi, which then consisted of one ski lift and no other winter sports activities, when he skied there. He was able to convince the International Olympic Committee to hold this year's Winter Olympics there, after personal guarantees of the completion by February 2014 of all Olympic venues including an historic rebuilding of the town of Sochi itself. Soon after, close allies of Putin flew the owner of the ski lift and some surrounding mountain areas up to Moscow and convinced him on the way that he should sell the area to them.
Putin has now had his government spend over $48 billion dollars on his project, more than China spent on the much larger and spectacular 2008 Summer Olympics. It is also more than the spending on all of the previous Winter Olympics combined, as well as including the costs of most of the prior Summer Games. Much of the money has gone to corrupt government officials and friends of the government, as well as such projects as a new permanent vast estate for Putin's private use, and resorts for officials in such agencies as the national Prosecutors Office and the Federal Security Service. Observers inside Russia and elsewhere see Putin's efforts as a way to firmly establish his legacy inside the country, and to expand his influence and demonstrate his total control on the international stage.
Underlying these events, of course, after the breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, was the loss of most of its Southern provinces which became separate independent countries. This led to the revolt of large numbers of armed Muslims in its remaining southern provinces. The internal revolt was the most serious attempt to overthrow national control through a civil war since the new Russia was established, and it continues today.
Many of the factors in the State Department memo, as well as my own prior research, led me to the early decision not to attend Sochi, even though I had attended 11 prior Olympic Games. I sincerely hope that nothing will happen there to dash the hopes and experiences of the thousands of athletes who have sacrificed all of their time and efforts over many years just to be an Olympian, let alone win a medal; it also would be a shame for spectators (and especially relatives of athletes who go) in probably the most expensive Olympics ever for them to attend.