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Sochi Winter Olympics skating on thin ice?

Just days from the Sochi winter games, challenges are clear.

By Corey Risinger

The 2014 Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia, may be the second ball to drop in the new year. With the controversy over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws, corruption uncovered in the Indian Olympic Committee, and devastating injury, these winter games are sure to exceed their usual excitement.

Being completely honest, the Winter Olympics never really seem to garner the same type of support as their summer equivalent. With a slightly more refined, or monied, selection of sports, not all audience members can relate just as well to cross country skiing as they can more traditional spectator sports. But in light of political crises,  the 2014 Winter Olympics should be expected to deliver more of a punch.

To start with, the social and political agendas of Putin certainly contradict many other western nations’, including those of the United States. Homophobic additions to the Russian legal code prohibit “homosexual propaganda,” and effectively threaten the freedom of any who are suspected of being gay, or “spread[ing] information about non-traditional sexual behavior” to minors. Foreigners who disregard this code may be subject to detainment for up to 14 days, deportation, and monetary fines. Even beyond the logistics of these summer 2013 declarations of Putin, the overall air of pervasive discrimination and disenfranchisement has caused tensions worldwide.

Unlike previous Olympic games, most recently showcasing Michelle Obama’s appearance at the London Olympics and George and Laura Bush’s presence at the Beijing Olympics, the diplomatic team sent to Sochi will include no high-ranking American officials. Many have identified the selection of openly-gay Olympic athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow as America’s representatives to be a passive aggressive snub at Putin’s oppression. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney notes that such a message would be superfluous, as the administration has explicitly stated its disapproval of the laws.

Demonstrators in Berlin protest Putin's anti-gay laws.
Demonstrators in Berlin protest Putin’s anti-gay laws.

“The president has been very clear that he finds it offensive, the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia, for example. We take very clear and strong stands on that issue, as well as the curtailment of civil society in Russia, as well as the harassment of those who protest corruption in Russia,” Carney said.

Other dilemmas plague Sochi’s success, such as security concerns in Russia following recent bombings from terrorist organizations.

“The entire international movement joins me in utterly condemning this cowardly act,” said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach regarding the bombings.

In contrast to the Russian response to protests against their anti-gay laws, the government and Olympic Committee have assured the world that they will play an active role in protecting the safety of athletes and spectators. But despite Russian attempts to assuage concerns of a nervous audience, the international sports community understands the vulnerability of Olympic athletes during their transporting to various Olympic venues.

Added strains will be placed on some participants, particularly on Indian athletes, who, under IOC penalty, have been stripped of their right to boast their country’s flag in the opening ceremonies. In December of 2012, the International Olympic Committee discovered corruption in the country’s Olympic Committee. The Indian Committee’s former Secretary-General Lalit Bhanot served jail time for wrongdoings relating to the 2010 Commonwealth Games held in Dehli.

Indian luger Shiva Keshavan has expressed his frustration with the delayed Olympic Committee elections.

The IOC had specifically stated that the three Indian athletes, including luger Shiva Keshavan, would be able to compete under their own flag if India scheduled the elections for new Olympic Committee officials prior to the February 7th opening date of Sochi. India failed to comply with this demand, though, setting Indian elections for February 9th.

The penalty of competing under the generic Olympic flag has been assessed before, most memorably to marathon competitor Guor Marial, hailing from the South Sudan, during the London Olympics and athletes from East Timur for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. This history does not make the offense any less embarrassing for athletes, as Kesavan enumerates.

“People around the world know about the failure of our systems and about corruption and bad governance in sports,” Kesavan lamented to the Washington Times.

Just to add to the time bomb that is the Sochi Winter Olympics, the United States must ready itself for the woe of losing skier and Olympic gold medalist Lindsay Vonn from its ranks. Months before Sochi, Vonn remained positive, hopeful that serious knee injuries and a lack of an ACL would not inhibit her participation, but she announced her withdrawal from the winter games on January 7th.

Lindsay Vonn shares a photo of her recovery from recent knee surgery via Twitter.
Lindsay Vonn shares a photo of her recovery from recent knee surgery via Twitter.

“On a positive note, this means there will be an additional spot so that one of my teammates can go for gold,” Vonn shared to her Facebook following. “Thank you all so much for all of the love and support. I will be cheering for all of the Olympians and especially team USA!”

Without Vonn, sports analysts look to Shaun White’s exuberant personality to hold team USA together in the media, though her presence will be undoubtedly missed.

So with the days until February 7th quickly disappearing, the Sochi Winter Olympics are sure to pack a punch. Even for those skeptical of the entertainment value of the winter games- compared with the Summer Olympics- 2014 holds definite potential for intrigue, conflict, and surprises.

“I think we all know, as we head to Sochi, that we’re in for an interesting ride,” reporter Matt Lauer summarized.

Photos Courtesy of:

Lindsay Vonn

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