It’s fair to wonder whether the athletic competition will get lost amid all the distractions at the Winter Olympics, which begin this week in Sochi, Russia.
Foremost among the distractions, of course, is the possibility, even the threat, of terrorist attacks. Those threats, after all, are why tens of thousands of security personnel have been assigned to Sochi and environs, and why there is much speculation about the security measures that aren’t visible as well as those that are in the open. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s most recent alert that terrorists may have found a way to combine even small amounts of liquid to make a bomb and destroy an airliner in flight only underscores the concern.
On the eve of the opening ceremonies, it’s worth praying that the security personnel and measures are up to the task and that athletes, visitors and Russians are safe.
Security isn’t the only issue. Human rights have found a timely soapbox in Sochi, in part because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies. Though his crackdown on LGBTs is only one point of contention with many of the visitors to his country — freedom of speech and assembly are others — it is perhaps most likely to lead to a confrontation between athletes or visitors and Russian security personnel.
The condition of the facilities at Sochi offers another distraction. A steady stream of reports about unfinished hotel rooms and restrooms and the lack in some places of running water — or at least clean water — doesn’t reflect well on President Putin. Russia’s investment in the Sochi Olympics has been monumental; what the world is about to learn is how much of a toll Russia’s infamous corruption has taken on its aspirations.
We don’t approve of Russia’s human rights policies any more than we can pretend that the Olympics have never been exploited for political purposes or that even the athletes have always lived up to Olympic ideals. Yet we hope the onset of competition will push these issues into the background.
For at least a little while, we’d rather wonder whether America’s hockey teams will prevail over traditional rivals, whether our snowboarders, figure and speed skaters, skiers, lugers, bobsledders and other participants will rise to the occasion. And we’d like to learn a little about the Olympians — those from other lands as well as members of the U.S. team.
There will be no end to the political debates, but the Winter Olympics will last barely two weeks. Let’s try to enjoy them while we can.