Putin on the Ritz – the controversies surrounding Sochi 2014

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In less than a day, snowboarders, figure skaters and bobsledders alike will meet in Sochi, Russia, to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Scheduled to be held at the Black Sea Resort, and with a running cost of $50 billion making it the most expensive Winter Games yet, it looks like Russia will be Putin on quite a show.

But it’s not all positive attention that Russia is attracting. Several groups are considering, or are fully committed to, a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games, because of major ongoing issues in Russia, creating concern over the safety of competitors and tourists.

For starters, there’s the laws passed by Russia’s federal parliament, in June of 2013, that have been dubbed the latest act in Putin’s anti-gay campaign. The laws prohibiting “propaganda” that supports “non-traditional sexual relations” – that is, non-heterosexual relations – have created fear of street attacks and riots breaking out in Sochi.

Fuelling this concern of retaliation from pro-gay groups is the loose definition of propaganda as “purposeful and uncontrolled distribution of information that can harm the spiritual or physical health of a minor, including forming the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations”.

So basically, anyone handing out information suggesting that people in homosexual relationships deserve equality would not only be correct, but would also be subject to heavy fines and potential detention. Foreigners, be they tourists or even competitors or Olympic officials, seen to be advocating a gay lifestyle to young people in Russia, face even larger fines, up to 14 days’ detention, or deportation.

As the New Yorker stated: “[the law] effectively prohibits gay-rights demonstrations, opens the door to implicitly sanctioned discrimination, and inflicts second class citizenship on gays and lesbians in Russia.”

Given that homosexual relationships were only decriminalised in Russia in 1993, the country isn’t exactly a gold medal winner in supporting its LGBTIQ community. In response to criticism of these laws, Russia’s sports minister commented: “No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes on to the street and starts propagandising it, then of course he will be held accountable.”

Russia’s assurances aside, these recent restrictions and their extremely broad definition of what counts as acting “pro-gay”, have sparked responses from famous figures around the world.

Comedian and actor Stephen Fry, who regularly speaks on the issue of gay rights, likened Russia hosting the Games to the 1936 Berlin Games held by the Nazi administration. Fry went so far as to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of “making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews.”

President Barack Obama has also not committed to attending the Games due to this issue, stating in an interview on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, that “if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

Leaving the fact that President Obama appears to be a little confused about the concept of the Winter Games (and its lack of swimming pools and balance beams), his lack of support for Russia’s anti-gay reform has not ended talks between the White House and Russian officials over the safety of Americans in Sochi during the Games.

It’s not just concern about Russia’s legal changes and potential backlash – members of an ethnic group called the Circassians, originally indigenous to the land on which the city of Sochi is built, are calling for the Games to be cancelled or moved unless the Russian government issues an apology for the death or deportation of a total of 1.5 million Circassians during the Russian-Circassian War.

There’s also controversy surrounding the facilities being built for the Games. Despite making a vow to make construction completely sustainable, the creation of the $9.4 billion Rail-Highway Link between Krasnaya Polyana Station and the Olympic Park has seen contractors dump debris into a water-protection zone. And that’s not to mention accusations of organised crime being behind the financing of the Park, and the state being defrauded of millions by contractors.

So while come Opening Ceremony, Russia will be directing the world’s attention to its multi-billion dollar production, bear in mind what’s going in behind the scenes. It’s not all skiing, skating and snow.

Maddie James is a third year Media/Law student with a love of politics, Tina Fey and puns. She’d be pleased to tweet you at [twitname]itsmaddiejames[/twitname].

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