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Fri February 7, 2014

A Fan's Notes: Why Be Sochi Pessimist?

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are being held in Sochi, Russia.

Of all sporting events, perhaps none is more tangled up in dreams of glory and miracles and fellowship than the Olympic Games. For two weeks, the peoples of the planet come together in celebration of the Olympic spirit and all is well with the world!

Yeah, right.

The Olympics are a human endeavor. All those idealistic “principles” in the Olympic Charter—social responsibility, mutual understanding, universal respect—are written down because they’re so often forgotten. Just search “Olympic Scandals and Controversies” on Wikipedia; you’ll find nearly a hundred offenses.

Yet perhaps no Olympiad has done more to expose the fragility of the Olympic ideal than these games in Sochi—and they don’t even open, officially, until today. The lead-up has been like a Russian comedy: not very funny. Granting the Winter Games to a sleepy beach resort in a subtropical climate was not the worst thing the International Olympic Committee’s ever done. But it didn’t exactly scream, “good idea.”

These are Vladimir Putin’s Olympics, a Soviet-style megaproject that would tickle Stalin. At $51 billion—that’s like 1.8 trillion rubles—this Sochi edition costs more than all other Winter Games in history, combined, with a huge chunk of that change lost to bribes, embezzling, and inflated contracts for Putin’s cronies. Reportedly, the Russian president even rigged the voting for the games’ official mascot.

And, of course, there are the human-rights issues. Not just Russia’s infamous ban on “homosexual propaganda,” but forced evictions of Sochi residents and maltreatment of the migrant workers who built Putin’s ice palaces, among other sins.

So what’s a principled fan to do? Should I watch? Does my love of luge, or the parallel giant slalom, indicate tacit support for a democratically-elected dictator?

Do I boycott? Remember, the last time the Olympics were in Russia, the United States didn’t even go.

Yes, despite all whimpers to the contrary, the Olympics are intensely geopolitical. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—Russia, in its current incarnation, is very much a part of the international landscape and hardly one to be ignored. So why look away? The spotlight on Sochi isn’t necessarily a flattering one. Reports from the first journalists in—of hotels without running water, manholes missing covers, meandering packs of stray dogs—are already robbing Putin of his flawless victory. Gay activists and others are hopeful that the publicized protests and strategic rebuffs by Western nations will have some impact on future choices made by the Olympic powers that be.

So let Putin and his IOC stooges play the villains. There are many more potential heroes. Like figure skater Gracie Gold—who grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and trained in Kansas City. Or snowboarder Shaun White, who hopes to half-pipe his way to gold for a record-setting third straight Olympics—only this time, with much shorter hair.

In this age of self-conscious spectating—the NFL’s concussion crisis and the NCAA’s exploitation of student-athletes are topics for another day—there is a certain purity in watching a finely tuned athlete go head-to-head with his or her own elastic limitations.

So watch, with care, but a clear conscience. The politics of the Sochi games may be questionable—and even the snow is manufactured—but the drama of the athletes’ quest…and the dreams and the Olympic glory…are real.

Just keep an eye on the Russian judge.

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