Olympic Spirit? Russia's Overshadowed Games

This year's Winter Olympics were anything but a carefree celebration of sport. Even before the flame was lit, there were critical questions about the preparations for these games -- and then came the events in Kiev.

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Last Thursday was a beautiful day in Sochi. As warm spring sun shone down on the Olympic Village, many visitors had settled at an outdoor café for a beer while others gathered around a mascot for a photo. In the Iceberg Skating Palace, figure skaters were dancing gracefully to the inspiring music of Tchaikovsky and Grieg.

But on the same day, almost 100 people lost their lives in Kiev, their corpses left lying on the streets or stacked up in a hotel lobby. The border to Ukraine is less than 600 kilometers (375 miles) from Sochi, which, for a country the size of Russia, is nothing. The violence was right next door.

From the very beginning, these games, which came to an end on Sunday, were anything but carefree. Many questioned the logic of choosing a subtropical seaside town to host the winter games and the preparations -- complete with expropriations of residents, incursions into a mountain nature reserve, the arrest and imprisonment of opposition activists and the horrendous, unprecedented price tag -- did little to silence the critics. It would have taken a miracle for these games to exude the unremitting joy of previous Olympics.

Sochi did, of course, have its moments: the final Olympic appearance of legendary skater Evgeni Plushenko; the emotional and intense men's hockey tournament; German luge dominance; the Russian cross-country sweep that gave the hosts the medal title; the hard-fought women's slalom race. There were certainly plenty of great Olympic performances.

The Symbol of Sochi

But Sochi was never able to shed the weight it carried from the very beginning; it was never able to become a true celebration of sport. And once violence erupted in Kiev, it was over. As the Olympic flame burned in the center of Sochi, black smoke was rising over Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital. Even a harmless headline like "Russia Devastated over Ice Hockey Loss" suddenly seemed cynical.

Olympic peace is an illusion, of course. It may have existed in antiquity, but during the 1992 summer games in Barcelona, for example, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans was just getting underway. As athletes took to the snow in Lake Placid in 1980, the Soviet army was invading Afghanistan. And then there were the Nazi games in Berlin in 1936. But even so, the events of last week, with so many people gunned down in the immediate vicinity of the Olympic Games, were shocking.

The International Olympic Committee tried to maintain the appearance of normality even as the dramatic events of Kiev were dominating the news. Business as usual, was the message. Even the donning of a simple mourning band by Ukrainian competitors proved too controversial for the IOC. Spokesman Mark Adams said: "There are 2,800 athletes here, so you can imagine there are, sadly, a lot of people with personal tragedy in their lives, some with big political tragedy, some with personal tragedy." At least he included the word "sadly."

In the end, Bogdana Matsotska couldn't take it anymore. The Ukrainian skier left Sochi last Thursday, even though her strongest discipline -- slalom -- was scheduled for Friday. Given the violence back home, she could no longer feign normalcy where there was none. Until the very end, the Sochi Olympic Games were searching for an identity. In Bogdana Matsotska, they found one.

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nj_morris 02/24/2014
1. Well written...
...can you please translate the same into Russian, so not only English speakers have something to laugh about?
Mockingbird 02/24/2014
2. Germany's Arrogance
Peter Ahrens lays the blame for what happened in Kieve, Ukraine quite squarely with the Russians and indirectly Putin. The games were already nothing and what happened in the Ukraine made them worse than nothing. But in the Munich Olympic games of 1972 the Germans themselves had a taste of terrorism with the death of 11 Israelis and 4 Arabs. But even though this terrible event started in the Olympic village itself with the capture and eventual killing of the Israeli wrestlers, it did not detract from the amazing achievements of the games. I remember Mark Spitz with his incredible achievement of 7 gold medals and the Australian Shane Gould who won 3 gold medals. Because terrible things happen does not mean that everything else is negated. No doubt Herr Ahrens is just warming up because worse things are soon to follow in the Ukraine. No decent, stable democracy was ever won through the barrel of a gun. And the extreme right wing thugs who orchestrated this fiasco are not about to step down. So I'm sure we will see more fingers pointed at Russia. But the hypocritical stance of someone like Ahrens is typical of Germany itself. Its grovelling deference paid to Israel for the Jewish Holocaust, for the 6 million dead, but the 26 million Russians who died fighting Nazi Germany are conveniently forgotten. This hypocrisy is disgusting and someone with the arrogance of Ahrens should have the decency to keep his mouth shut.
sotman1934 02/24/2014
3. Shochi
Good I liked it.
rafael 02/24/2014
4. optional
This article is overpoliticising the sport. What makes it even less palatable is the powerful odor of jealousy emanating from it. Get the grit; Russia IS on the march.
zitzwitz@mac.com 02/26/2014
5. Sochi
When politics are in doubt and even fail, what do we have left? Cultural events and sport seems to be a good start. The Olympics and the classics do speak to all. The quote by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do”.
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