Local scholars cite spending, security issues at Winter Olympics in Russia

Sunday, February 09, 2014
AMHERST — Are the Winter Olympics, with its opening ceremonies Friday in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, mainly a spectacle of overspending and corruption or a sign of an emerging new Russia that is reshaping its role as a global leader?

The answer, say local scholars, is a bit of both — though most were skeptical about whether the first Olympics held in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union will end up being a public relations boost for the country.

Sergey Glebov, a native of Siberia who teaches Russian history at both Smith and Amherst colleges, points to the record-breaking $51 billion cost of Olympic Park and other facilities in Sochi as evidence of extravagance and waste.

Follow @BarbaraSolow //

For example, he pointed out that a 30-mile road built to connect the city’s airport with Olympic skiing venues cost $10 billion, “which is more than the cost of all of the infrastructure in the Vancouver Games” in 2010.

In addition to outsized price tags for Olympic venues, Glebov cited media reports about kickbacks, bribes and construction contracts going to associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that the games have become a tool for well-connected parts of Putin’s circle,” said Glebov, who lives in Amherst. “Only 3.5 percent of that $51 billion investment has come from private sources. The rest is from the state. This is being done at the expense of Russian taxpayers.”

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College since 1975, agrees there is a gap between Putin’s vision of the Games and the reality of how ordinary Russians will benefit from their country’s role as host of the competition.

“It’s unclear whether there will be any return on the investment,” said Zimbalist, a Northampton resident who is an expert on sports economics. “The fact of the matter is that the Winter Olympics only generates about $3 billion and most of that goes back to the International Olympic Committee.”

In Zimbalist’s view, the key issue surrounding the 22nd Winter Olympics is security. He noted that Sochi is located near the disputed territory of Abkhazia and the Chechen Republic, both of which are home to Islamic insurgencies.

While Russian security forces have cracked down on suspected militants in recent months, the head of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center cited specific concerns earlier this week about whether Islamic fundamentalists or other groups would launch attacks during the Olympics Games.

“For me, the biggest question mark about the games has to do with security,” Zimbalist said. “Russia is already a very difficult country to travel in. Now, overlaid on top of that are these security checks. I think one of the things we’re going to see at these Olympics is empty stands.”

Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, acknowledges that Russia faces challenges in hosting the Olympics. But he believes the “endless negativity” in the media’s focus on issues such as security and shoddy hotel construction reflect outdated Cold War attitudes.

“A gap opens up between the reality of the games and the aspect that has captured the imagination of journalists,” said Wolff, who retired from UMass in 2008 and now teaches at The New School in New York City. “To read the reports about this in the New York Times is to read a newspaper that doesn’t seem to have grasped that the Cold War is over.”

Instead, Wolff sees the Olympics through the lens of Russia’s membership in a group of nations known as BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — whose economic and global influence is thought to be rapidly growing.

“We are in the middle of a huge global realignment in which the position of the U.S. is shrinking relative to what it once was and the BRICS are gaining more and more of the limelight,” Wolff said.

Hosting the Olympics offers Russia “a priceless public relations opportunity to show they have arrived,” Wolff said. “This proud athletic spectacle is important for them in defining their new place.”

When asked how a Russian law banning dissemination of “gay propaganda” affects that public relations effort, Wolff concedes it has hurt the country’s image.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama, have condemned the rule, and the U.S. is sending two openly gay athletes to be part of Friday’s opening ceremonies — Olympic ice hockey medallist Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano.

While he considers the Russian law “grotesque,” Wolff said it should not overshadow people’s view of the Games. “It would be easy to pick up on an anti-gay organization in the U.S. and play on that in the media,” he said. “It’s a question of balance.”

Glebov, who was part of a panel discussion last week at Brandeis University in Waltham about the rise of xenophobia in Russia, said the new law "has no connection as such with the Games" but is a reflection of attitudes in society.

He added that Russian elites experienced "a little bit of a psychological shock" at worldwide reactions to the law, feeling "it's very unjust that the West engages in anti-Russian rhetoric."

What does Russia hosting the Olympics mean for its relationship with the U.S.?

Zimbalist was pessimistic that ties between the two countries, which have been strained in recent years, will improve as a result of the Winter Games.

“The fact that Obama is not going doesn’t help,” Zimbalist said. “The ideal of the Olympic movement, bringing people together, that’s not happening here.”