We are just two weeks away from the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Thousands of athletes, trainers and jingoistic supporters from around the world will descend on the glistening resort community in the southwest corner of Russia that borders the Black Sea, which leaves me wondering one thing...
What are you people, nuts?
The stories surrounding the Sochi Games are downright post-apocalyptic, from harrowing tales of terrorism and "black widows" to disheartening stories of a nationwide crackdown on homosexuality to ridiculously viral nonsense like bathroom stalls with multiple toilets.
Seriously, double toilets are the least of the concerns in Sochi, and that's the story that got the most attention online this week, distracting too many of us from freaking out about the suicide bombers on the loose. It's as scary as anyone can imagine.
It's so scary, in fact, that at least one Canadian journalist is happy about that region becoming the sporting equivalent of a military base during the Games. From Canada.com's Bruce Arthur:
Every modern Olympics is blanketed in layers of guns and money, of course; it’s become more and more necessary, ever since the lessons of Munich. Sochi, however, is exceptional.
And the guns—oh, the guns. There will be a minimum of 40,000 police and government troops working on security, and they have been on combat alert since the end of December. There will be missile batteries, underwater sonar, drones patrols, mobile mechanized bomb detectors, comprehensive surveillance of every email or phone call, roadblocks and forbidden zones.
This region of Russia has become so dangerous—and the Russian government reportedly so corrupt—that Bruce Arthur of the National Post literally wrote a story hoping Russian President Vladimir Putin is "strong and ruthless and vicious enough to protect everyone at his imperial Olympics."
We are at a point where people will settle for fascism, because it's the least terrifying –ism from which to choose.
Oh, and it's no choice. Certainly, if we could choose whether to deal with Russia's antiquated stance on social issues or bombs killing people at the Olympics, most people would lean toward run-of-the-mill oppression. Being shunned, harassed or even jailed still, in most cases, trumps being blown to pieces by the widow of a dead militant who is out for revenge.
Yes, the black widows…they are actual widows. It's not some species of poisonous spider that's gotten loose or anything like that. (Add that to the list of things we'd rather have in Sochi than terror threats.)
Oppression of gays and venomous spiders suddenly don't seem so bad. Thanks, Russia!
Maybe it's just me. I am a bit of a worrywart when it comes to thousands of people, including some of my friends who are going over there to cover this event, getting blown up.
Maybe things won't be that bad, after all.
Putin doesn't think so. He told gay people, for example, they can feel safe despite laws that prohibit (read: punish) their existence in his country. From a January 17 story by Laura Smith-Parker and Nic Robertson on CNN.com:
The President said Russia, unlike some other countries, does not criminalize homosexual relationships.
"We don't outlaw anything and don't nab anyone," Putin said.
"That's why you can feel safe and free here, but please leave our children in peace," he added.
Russia has come under international pressure since its parliament passed a law last summer outlawing "gay propaganda." The legislation makes it illegal to tell children about gay equality.
That news makes me feel better. Though I'm surprised Putin would use the word "safe" about anything right now, especially considering those quotes came just two days after reports that seven people died in a shootout during a sweep for militants in the Sochi region. Five officers were also wounded.
Of course, that's nothing compared to the suicide attacks in December in Volgograd—about 400 miles away from Sochi—which killed more than 30 people and wounded many others. Another suicide bomber hit that region in October as well.
Let's not forget there are more suicide bombers still on the loose. Black widows. Fantastic.
The terror is not just an issue in Russia. There are terror threats being levied against competing nations, too, most recently involving the Hungarian Olympic Committee, which received a letter threatening its athletes this week. From a January 22 Reuters report, quoting Hungarian Olympic Committee's official Zsigmond Nagy:
Both the IOC and the Sochi organizing committee... officially declared after the analysis of the letter that this threat is not real, and this person has been sending all kinds of messages to many members of the Olympic family.
In addition to the actual terrorists scheming to make a political statement at the Sochi Olympics, federations have to deal with run-of-the-mill nutjobs who send letters proclaiming to be terrorists. At the very least, it's a distraction. At worst, it's all part of someone's sick plan.
USOC advises US Olympians to avoid wearing Team USA gear outside of Olympic venues for safety reasons, according to memo obtained by @WSJ.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 23, 2014
What's come from all this fear, then? How are the organizers making sure everyone stays safe?
The Russians want to borrow United States military technology that would provide security a better chance at spotting bombs. From NBC World News' Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube:
Military officials said the possibility was raised by the Russian military Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in discussions on Tuesday with U.S. Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey during their first face-to-face meeting.
"The Russian brought it up," according to one official who said the Russians are interested in obtaining some of the advance electronics that the U.S. has developed to detect roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report also stated it was not clear if the U.S. technology can detect suicide bombs. So, that's just great.
But again, maybe this is what they want. Terror comes in all shapes and sizes, so maybe the terrorists just want everyone to worry and spend millions upon millions of extra dollars to protect people they have no intention of harming. Joke's on all of us, right?
Let's hope so. Or let's do more than hope. Let's do something about it.
So…does anyone have any ideas on what to do? Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, who has covered more Olympics than most of us have been alive to see, do you have an idea?
The Olympics aren’t supposed to kill people. They’re supposed to exalt them. But it’s too late to take the dangerous, despoiling Winter Games away from the thugocracy that is Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime, so the only option is to count on the man’s bulging biceps and hope it’s an adequate “ring of steel” that can keep people safe in Sochi. It’s a cold hard fact that these Olympics have become an agent of death.
OK. So it's not just me. Everyone is freaking out, including many of those scribes who will be spending the better part of a month—better as in an extended duration of time, not the quality of that time—just a few hours away from a modern-day war zone...in multiple directions.
The only option left, it seems, is to trust that the safety of thousands of people from around the world now falls on Putin and his security forces.
The rest of us just have to deal with it.
Or we could boycott. A lot of people suggested that back when the biggest issue surrounding the Games was Russia's (lack of) gay rights laws.
That doesn't seem fair to the athletes who work their entire lives to get, in some cases, one shot at making the Olympics. Boycotting would have sent a message, but at this point, there's no chance of a boycott with so many athletes already in the region training and the event starting in a fortnight. Not that we would have ever boycotted anyway.
Former Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir shared his thoughts recently about the idea of boycotting the Olympics. Via Yahoo! Sports:
I've come under so much hate and scrutiny from within my own LGBT community for my views on the Olympics. But as somebody who watched my parents sacrifice everything so that I had at least one chance of making the Olympics, I could never boycott the Olympics whether they be in Pyongyang (North Korea), in Uganda, in Iran or Mars. I would have competed there because my whole life has been about going to the Olympics. Being gay isn't something that I chose, being gay is something I was born into. But being an Olympic athlete was something that I chose and something I worked hard for, and I'll see it to any necessary end.
It's interesting, because talk of boycotting seems patently ridiculous coming from a country with such a confusing stance on gay rights. In an extreme case, an op-ed written this week suggested Americans boycott the NBC coverage because they hired Weir—an openly gay athlete of well-known flamboyance—to work the Sochi Games.
We, as a nation, would never boycott an Olympics over something as polarizing as a gay rights issue. (Note: This doesn't even begin to talk about the issues of open racism in Russia.) We would never boycott an Olympics over something as concerning as a terror attack, either, especially not if our military can aid in keeping the athletes safe.
The U.S. military will have up to two warships and several transport aircraft on standby under a contingency plan to help evacuate American officials and athletes from the Winter Olympics, if ordered, a U.S. official said Monday.
The State Department would take the lead in organizing and evacuating Americans, if necessary, the official with direct knowledge of the plan told CNN.
Oh, well that makes me feel a lot safer for everyone, actually. Uncle Sam's got the van parked outside if anything goes wrong. Okay then.
Moscow would have to ask for such assistance before the United States would act, the official said.
I'm finally starting to understand the double toilets.
Truth be told—and yes, I probably should have put this higher on the page—this is Putin's problem, but it's not really his fault. It's the International Olympic Committee once again looking the other way when human rights issues and political unrest should make certain parts of the world completely and utterly off limits to hosting such enormous international events.
Having said that, there continue to be terror threats at all major events around the world. That's an unfortunate sign of the times we live in now. Hell, a bomb went off in Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics, so who are we to talk about boycotting anything at the risk of some explosions.
Still, this one feels different, and given everything that has been going on the last few years under Putin's reign in Russia and all the unrest in that part of the world, it's going to be hard to trust that those on the ground really have everything under control.
We are still two weeks out, and the entire idea of these Olympics is incredibly terrifying. I don't know what those planning to go must be thinking.