Sochi – bigger and better
Few in India would have heard of the Winter Olympics. Fewer still of Sochi. So what exactly is the hullabaloo about? If it’s sport it must be football. And that means the 2014 FIFA World Cup. But 2014 happens to be the year when another major sporting event will take place, the 22nd Winter Olympics to be precise. A multi-sport event, the Winter Olympics might not be taken seriously in tropical countries like India but they mean a lot to Europeans and North Americans.
With 98 events scheduled across 7 sports and 15 disciplines, they will see 2800 athletes gather from every corner of the globe on February 7 in the resort city of Sochi, nestled in the Caucasus Mountains along Russia’s Black Sea coast. The inaugural Winter Olympics began in 1924, in Chamonix, France, a full 28 years later than the more famous Summer version.
How did it all begin? The roots lie in the far north of Europe where the Nordic Games organized by Sweden and Norway inspired a Swedish officer-cum-sportsman, Viktor Balck to attempt the inclusion of winter sports in the Olympic programme. An early member of the International Olympic Committee, Balck was close to the founder of the Olympics – Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin.
The dream came true when IOC decided that France, host of the 1924 Summer Olympics would have an ‘International Winter Sports Week’ in Chamonix. 250 participants from 16 countries participated. Finland and Norway topped the medals tally, underlining the dominance of the Nordic nations. In 1925, IOC decided that the Winter Games would be organized have a separate venue and schedule.
The Sochi edition happens to be the biggest and most expensive Winter Games ever. It might also go down as one of the most controversial Olympics ever organized. With the Russian President, Vladimir Putin pulling out all stops to make it a success, the original bill of 12 billion USD ended up touching a figure of 44 billion USD. Two impressive complexes were put up – the Sochi Olympic Park near the Black Sea and the Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains, and the Olympic flame travelled 40,000 kilometres, from the summit of Mount Elbrus to the depths of Lake Baikal.
Though the bill outdid the expenditure for the Beijing Summer Olympics, the event is of symbolic importance for the country. President Vladimir Putin was present in person in Guatemala City to ensure Russia’s victory in the final round of the bidding process in 2007. But what was supposed to be his moment of glory has been soured by the controversies raging in the Western press. These included the suitability of Sochi as a venue (being the warmest host city ever), calls for a Russian apology over the genocide of Circassians (natives of the Caucasus), terror threats (posed by Chechen insurgents who carried out bomb attacks in Volgograd) and the treatment of sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals).
The bad press has only served to spoil ties between Russia and the West. There were unconfirmed reports of heads of state from leading nations of North America and Europe boycotting the opening ceremony. Human rights activists and organizations have been particularly critical of the Putin presidency, accusing Kremlin of stifling democracy and the freedom of expression. But the regime has said that such allegations are without basis. A number of prisoners, including members of the band Pussy Riot and jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were released before the Games.
India – perennial outsider
While there’s little interest in games such as bobsleigh, curling and luge and no hope of bagging medals, Sochi will see 3 athletes from the country – Shiva Keshavan (luge), Himanshu Thakur (Alpine skiing) and Nadeem Iqbal (cross-country skiing) trying their luck in Sochi. But the saddest thing about the whole affair will be the fact that the trio will march not under the Indian tricloour but the flag of the IOC. This is because the country’s Olympic Association remains suspended. Once again Indians – on and off the field will have to make do with the experience of applauding medalists of other nations and gazing in wonder at the pyrotechnics of the opening (February 7) and closing (February 23) ceremonies.