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Keith Strudler: Olympic Games Are Not Quite Ready

So what if you threw a party, and no one came? Ask Vladimir Putin about that. He’s got a big old party going on right now in Sochi, a term that now invokes sentiment far beyond its Olympic ideal. In now a matter of hours, Sochi will begin its two weeks hosting the Winter Olympic Games, an event that’s been so long in the making it feels like it should already be over.

Unfortunately, not only is it not over, it’s nowhere ready to begin. This week, thousands of journalists, visitors, and assorted guests arrived in town only to find hotels either incomplete or, in some cases, never even begun. Networks like CNN have checked into one unfinished room instead of the 10 or so they reserved months ago. It’s like a bad honeymoon, only without the wedding before to soften the blow. And guests are greeted by stray dogs, those that weren’t already put to sleep by Russian officials, and workmen coming in and out of their rooms like it was a construction zone.

Of course, that’s for the people who actually went to Russia. What’s just as notable are those that didn’t, including Barak Obama, Joe Biden, German and French presidents, and British Prime Minister David Cameron. Basically, if their predecessor were at the original Games in 1896, good chance they’re not in Sochi right now.

Also not present at the Games are the massive protests we’d expected only weeks ago when Putin eased restrictions on public demonstrations. Widespread security enforcement and political pressures are likely to blame for that. IOC president Thomas Bach went so far as to admonish those who wished to use the Olympics for political purposes, as if their existence in a country that demonized homosexuality didn’t do just that.

Olympic sponsor AT&T may be at the event, but they’re not happy about it. They just released a statement condemning Russia’s anti-gay policies, lest anyone confuse the company’s financial support of the event as anything more than that. Other sponsors will likely follow suit, a disturbing possibility for the Olympic sales staff. Fortunately, Brazil fronts a much more liberal persona, and will benefit from the dry run of this summer’s World Cup. But it does reminisce of past generations of Olympic movements, where political realities weren’t simply distractions, they were essential reasons to be.

The IOC likely gets this, even as they wag their finger in admonishment this week. In fact, the IOC just raised the possibility of naming multiple host sites for future Olympic Games, so they’re not housed in one particular country, but rather spread across the globe in one made-for-TV spectacle. It not only depoliticizes the event, or at least the influence of any one political motion, but also confounds any accounting of the actual expense. In other words, we wouldn’t have to read about how any one country, like Russia, spent $51 million on non-functioning hotels and massive security risks. And it mitigates the security risks, of which there are many, for any one locale. In other words, it spreads the load and the blame.

Right now it’s not at all difficult to blame Russia and Vladimir Putin for this messy affair. And all critiques are fair and well founded.

But in the end, you can’t just blame Russia, any more than you can blame your two-year old for spilling a 32 ounce mug you gave him. The Olympics, and all that comes with it is the purview of the IOC. They control the movement, its events, and its economy – weight they throw around quite liberally. Which means they own its failures and political overtones as well, which, right now are ugly and abundant. The IOC can’t tell athletes to shut up any more than you can make someone enjoy a date to the prom. And if they do just that, they should prepare for the warranted backlash, not just against Russia, but against them as well. That’s what’s they’re getting from Obama, and AT&T, and a whole bunch of other power players that help make the Olympics what it is, instead of some second tier festival with sports we never watch. The IOC should remember that when picking its next site, probably something they did keep in mind in picking the safety zone of Japan for 2020.

Of course, maybe the best think that could happen for the Olympic movement right now is for people not to watch. As is, it looks like a whole lot of folks have decided just to stay away.

Dr. Keith Strudler is director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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