WASHINGTON — Thanks to President Jimmy Carter, the last time Russia hosted the Olympics, the United States didn’t participate, depriving America’s finely honed athletes the one opportunity many of them would ever have to enjoy the thrill of taking part in the games.
Now as Sochi looms the descendants of those unfortunates may fervently wish they were going somewhere else to show off their winter skills, and that goes for their individual cheering sections as well. Some may even be wondering if Carter’s boycott was so bad after all. The possibility of terrorist violence has forced loved ones and friends of U.S. team members to reassess their plans for traveling, a few at the suggestion of the participants themselves.Whether the thousands of security personnel and frantic efforts to meet the logistical challenges of evacuation can beat back the threat swirling around the venues where thousands of the world’s finest will be put through their paces is problematic. Even if the answer is a resounding yes as we fervently hope, the atmosphere is hardly what these games symbolize — a place for peaceful and exuberant competition between friends and even enemies.
These games are supposed to be an exhibition of the best we humans have to offer — the one chance to come together in a spirit that reflects the Ode to Joy theme music that blankets them. Instead an air of oppression is what one can expect if he decides that all the media hype about potential tragedy is over the top. If athletes can’t venture beyond the Olympic Village or venue in their colourful garb and must always be accompanied by teams of heavily armed guards, then what is the worth of all this?
Who’s to blame for this travesty? Why it’s none other than the International Olympic Committee, which is populated by mental midgets. Choosing a site well known for its violence and in the middle of a virtual war zone is indisputable testimony to that. But the good old IOC — the governing board that is supposed to be apolitical but never has been seems to care little about much more than its own aggrandizement and, of course, money.
Attending the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, a few years back, it quickly became obvious that the site was chosen not for its accessibility, which was utterly absent, but for what it could bring to the table in terms of willingness to hock its future to build facilities that never again would be in great demand.
Those facilities were notoriously small in terms of seating capacity. Attendance by other than the Japanese was limited.
Not only were the Japanese Alps noted for their fickleness when it comes to snow for the ski events, they are a long drive from Nagano, which is hours away from Tokyo. Along the way one could see hotels owned by a billionaire supporter of the IOC whose contribution to the games included a monument to the organization’s chairman. The hotels were full, of course.
Ironically, when the principals of the Salt Lake City site for the Winter Games showed that they understood what it took to win the IOC’s selection roulette, they not only had personal bad fortune they were accused of lacking the integrity for such an undertaking. Mitt Romney came dashing to the rescue to straighten out things and to give his political aspirations a significant boost.
Many years ago, the IOC chose Denver as the winter site only to meet overwhelming opposition as things progressed. A campaign headed by a courageous young newspaperman, Michael Balfe Howard, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, showed just how debilitating both to the environment and the city’s finances the spectacle would be. For the first time perhaps in its history, the IOC was forced to cancel the site and chose another.
Vladimir Putin has promised that his troops can provide the security needed. But again it is fair to ask at what cost both in respect to the image and economics of this enormous event. U.S. taxpayers will foot the bill for a sizable security effort including military ships for the possible evacuation of 10,000 Americans.
Unfortunately, the condition of the world today demands security not needed in the past. The tragedy of Munich summer games and the slaughter of the Israeli team made that the case forever. How foolish it was for the IOC to have gone looking for disaster.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers.