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Let's hope spotlight at Olys shines on athletes, not politics

Posted: 02/1/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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More and more the story of this Olympics is threatening to be about money, human rights and the threat of terrorism. Let's hope the focus ends up being on the athletes and their marvelous achievements.

From the moment Russia and the city of Sochi were granted the right to host the 2014 Winter Games, there has been a media furor. These Games have the potential to introduce the world to rich history of the Russian people. They will also point a spotlight on a government many outsiders believe to be corrupt and tyrannical.

The Olympics long ago ceased to be just about the Games. From Jesse Owens, to Munich, to the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, to the boycotts of the 1980s, the Olympics have been used as a political tool. Sochi appears to be no different.

Security, security, security

Whether it's Chechen rebels or another terrorist group, the world has its eyes on the security in Sochi. Over $3 billion will be spent on security compared to a price tag of $868 million in Vancouver four years ago.

Surveillance of every kind including a space-based cyberdome for electronic spying, technology to track phone and online communication and seven thousand security cameras will be employed. A boundary will enclose the Olympic park and every person and vehicle attempting to enter will have to pass through a police blockade. Purchase of an event ticket includes a waiver submitting the holder to a background check. Still, the world is holding its breath.

Gay rights

Last summer, Putin kicked off a firestorm of criticism when he signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies. There has been talk of boycotts and demonstrations from outsiders while Russian lawmakers have refused to guarantee the rights of visitors.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has said that all athletes' rights would be respected but in the same breath added athletes would "have to respect the laws of the country."

No one is sure what to expect but with most folks expecting to have their phone and online conversations monitored, there is clearly an air of censorship hovering over the Games as they approach. Will an athlete attempt to send a gay rights message such as the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City's 1968 Summer Games? Perhaps, more importantly, how will the Russians react?

The cost

Putin shocked the International Olympic Committee when he promised to spend a record $12 billion on these Games but now that the cost has ballooned in excess of $51 billion, the boasting has lost its volume and lustre. Kickbacks and corruption have reportedly total in the billions.

Putin, however, never saw this as just a chance to host the Olympics or as a public relations play. He wanted to revitalize the Caucasus region. Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister in charge of Olympic preparations, recently stated only $6 billion of the total is directly Olympics-related with the rest directed to infrastructure and development.

Either way, this has been an expensive undertaking and how the legacy is viewed in a decade's time will tell the tale of this investment.

Last kick at the can

The NHL is not bluffing when it talks about dusting off the World Cup of Hockey and playing it every second summer rather than send its players to the Olympics every four years. This will almost certainly be the last time NHL players participate in the Olympics for some time.

The NHL reaps limited dollars from this event with most of the broadcasting and ticket cash going to the IOC. The NHL doesn't like ceding control of its project to another entity and prefers the much more profitable model of the World Cup. Playing in the summer and not interrupting the NHL's regular season is also a plus.

A gold medal from the Olympics has become part of the future Hall of Famers' public relations kit. It can take a solid career over the top. It's also a great piece for over the mantle. Expect the competition to be fierce as NHLers from hockey powers try to get their Olympic bling before the league and union move on to a much more profitable summer event.

The next big thing

From Nancy Greene to Beckie Scott and Jon Montgomery to Alex Bilodeau and Cindy Klassen, the Winter Olympics have produced a number of sporting idols in this country. Who will rise up from obscurity and capture our nation's imagination?

Maybe a well-known athlete like lawyer/mom/curler Jennifer Jones will win gold and return to Canada at a whole new level of fame. Perhaps it will be speedskater Christine Nesbitt or maybe one of our athletes competing in the 12 new sports with Canadian contenders competing in men's and women's freestyle halfpipe and slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle, the luge relay and the figure skating team event.

There will be a new hairstyle kids will try to emulate and some sport will see a surge in registration as a result of these Olympics.

Canada's haul

Canada won 14 gold medals, seven silver and five bronze at the Winter Games in Vancouver setting records in total medals with 26 and gold wins. With 12 new events at this Winter Games, Canada will have a crack at 36 more medals and its 221-member team is the largest this country has ever sent to the games. The goal is to win the total medals race and to be tops in gold medals.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 A1

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