True Focus of Winter Olympics: Corruption or Medals?

Seven years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Guatemala City, Guatemala in an effort to win the bid of hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. His proposal of $12 billion dwarfed that of finalists, South Korea and Austria. It was his attempt to show the world a new Russia and that these games were to be the platform of the economic and geopolitical revival of his country.

As the world knows, Russia had been behind an “Iron Curtain” as Winston Churchill coined back in 1946. Millions lived behind the curtain of, “Soviet Communism, the dark tyranny that controlled nearly 40 nations and was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100 million victims during the 20 century.”

Years of communist rule and oppression finally came down when in 1987, without a shot being fired, President Ronald Reagan asked, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

This facilitated the dialogue between the two nations, and in the spring of 1988, President Reagan traveled to Moscow touting the blessings of democracy, free enterprise, and most importantly, individual freedom. Quoting the Russian poet Pushkin, “It’s time, my friend, it’s time.”

A year later, communism collapsed. Because of this past historic moment, on Feb. 7, 2014, the world had a front row seat into a country so massive, it spans nine different time zones. Welcome to Sochi.

Watching the pre-opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games, we saw the panoramic view of St. Petersburg with its colorful and unusual architecture as the birthplace for arts, literature and music.

After, you were transported to Russia’s capital, Moscow, the largest Russian city that is also the cultural, economic, political and scientific center in all of Russia. We saw the snow-capped mountains of the Caucasus, all the way to our destination, the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi.

Here is where our story begins. A story of the 22nd Winter Olympics Games, full of hope and anticipation, and yet somehow that story is lost in translation; overshadowed by another story spattered with corruption, money, terror, and of course, sexual orientation. Sounds like the makings of a great trashy novel. Unfortunately, this is real life.

Corruption is a word that has been thrown around since that fateful day seven years ago when it was determined that Sochi would be awarded the host position. Is Putin corrupt? Perhaps, but why are reports focusing on that? We live in a society that thrives on corruption. It is everywhere in the media, even as close as embezzlement of funds in an elementary school PTO by the treasurer. Wasn’t there question about the ethics of the Vice President of the free world giving government contracts to a company that he himself had an interest in?

Look in our own backyard and reexamine the ex-mayor of the automotive capital of the world, Kwame Kilpatrick, where now he currently spends his days behind bars on none other than corruption charges. How about the McNamara terminal of the Detroit Metro Airport, the hub of Delta, a $1.6 billion project that involved blackmail, bribery, kick-backs, and extortion. An article titled,  “Michigan: Where Corruption Never Sleeps” published in The Times Herald,  references the “wrong-doings”  that went on during the build, which inevitably, “led to the conviction of a top McNamara aid.” The list goes on and on. Crooks walk among us.

Let us now focus on the city of Sochi itself. Russia has spent $51 billion preparing to entertain the world at this one event. What person, when entertaining guests does not want to put their best foot forward? People rush around cleaning in haste of making the guest’s arrival special. Why wouldn’t Russia do the same? How many of us have run out of time and have had to throw the laundry pile behind a door and close it hoping no one finds it? It is none of our business how much money Russia has spent. It is Russia’s money.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, apparently only $6 billion has gone to Olympic related items. The rest of the $51 billion has gone to regional development and infrastructure, much that was needed in the first place. Before we cast shame on the dirty laundry behind the door, consider Detroit; a vibrant city that is now bankrupt in spite of all the money that has been allocated to them.

So when the negative nancys go on to talk about the money spent and what will happen to the city after the Olympics, the answer is the same thing that happened to the other host cities of Lake Placid, Sydney, Athens and Beijing. The Olympics are a constructive experience, not destructive.

And if that is not enough to complain about, we can always address the substandard accommodations. Hotel rooms are not as highly appointed as some would like. What do you think this is, the Hilton? Of course there have been problems that have happened. Johnny Quinn, the American bobsledder, did have to break out of his bathroom after being accidentally locked inside. What a story he will be able to share for generations to come.

It is also so refreshing to learn about the NHL athletes sacrificing more luxurious accommodations to stay with the USA national team in more of a dorm-like setting with twin beds. This all fosters camaraderie and it is all part of the experience. Where are our manners? What guest would come to your home and say, “Wow, this isn’t good enough. I expected better,” and continue to complain. I guess the welcome mat would not be out next time.

You cannot address the Olympics without using the word terrorism. Unfortunately, terror is a part of this world. The 1977 Munich Olympics showed terror unfolding live on TV. The Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. experienced terror at an outdoor concert. Needless to say, terror surrounds us. We are not safe sending our kids to school, going to see a movie or shop at the mall. You’re not even safe going to a popular foot-race like the Boston Marathon. We are safe if we stay home though, but do we want to stay home? The world is having a party and we are all invited. Putin will do everything in his power to keep everyone safe in Sochi and his efforts are not going unnoticed.

Rather than focusing on the athletes’ successes, there has been a great deal of chatter about the politics and lack of gay rights in Russia. There is more talk about tolerance and diversity at the Olympics than the athletes competing. Brian Boitano, one of three openly gay athletes that are part of the United States delegation in Sochi said to the San Jose Mercury News, “I don’t feel like we need to say anything, really. Everyone knows why we are here. People get it.”

He is right. All the athletes in Sochi, regardless of their sexual orientation, are here for the same goal: to compete among the best of the best for gold medals.

“I think everything is being blown up bigger than it is,” Austrian lesbian ski-jumper, Daniela Iraschko-Stolz said. “I had a very good welcome like every other athlete. There were absolutely no problems. I only want to focus on sports and I think if you’re tolerant towards everyone else, they treat you the same way and it gives you a lot of joy. I think you can make a statement by jumping well.”

According to Billie Jean King, tennis legend and an openly gay athlete, she, “[doesn’t] think anti-gay policies should overshadow athletes, focus should be on the games.”

So, instead of focusing on the lack of gold, silver or bronze handles in the hotels, the media should be focusing on the gold, silver and bronze that will be adorning the necks of these amazing athletes and the many untold stories of sacrifice, courage and tenacity behind them. These role models that represent the United States so well have put all this chatter aside to show what gracious houseguests they are in the face of wins and losses.

Let us embrace these games that support tourism, fellowship and new economic foundations, that hopefully increase Sochi’s reputation and value. Let us relive that opening ceremony beginning with the Russian police choir singing their rendition of “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, to the extravaganza of such beauty and magnitude that depicted Russia’s history, their accomplishments and contributions to the world, their appreciation of the arts and their past struggles.

I say for the remainder of the games, focus on the positives instead of the negatives. Let’s put on those rose-colored glasses and appreciate every triumph, heartbreak and awe-inspiring event. So pour a little vodka in your glass and soak in this once-every-four-year moment in history and say, “Na Zdorovie!”

Faith Krogulecki is a panelist on The Pact for Impact Sports.

Photo: Sochi 2014 Olympics