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Action Replay: Winter Wonderland

You would probably expect the Winter Olympics, involving skiing, bobsleigh and so on, to be held somewhere quite chilly. But the Games next February will be in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea, where the average temperature that month is about the same as in Manchester.

Climate is not the only controversial point about the choice of venue. Another relates to the notorious Russian law that prohibits ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’ among minors, which has been used to stop people speaking in defence of gay rights or holding gay pride events. The International Olympic Committee has apparently been assured that the law will not affect participants or spectators at the Games, but not everyone is convinced by this, and no Pride House dedicated to gay athletes will be permitted.

Environmental problems are prominent too. There have been claims that the building of massive new transport infrastructure was done without proper study of the local geology, and in 2010 a storm washed away a cargo port that was in the process of being built.

And the cost is enormous, at $50bn as much as five times the original budget. The workers who do the actual construction are treated appallingly: ‘Low-skilled migrants get $500 a month, working 12-hour shifts with no contracts, safety training or insurance… Some employers withhold workers’ passports, so they cannot leave the site. Last year at least 25 people died in accidents and many more were injured’ (Economist, 13 July).

Moreover, this being Putin’s Russia, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the award of construction contracts, many of which have gone to companies owned by the president’s mates. A company owned by one Arkady Rotenberg, often described as an old friend and former judo partner of Putin, has won contracts worth over $7bn. Rotenberg’s wealth is $3.3bn, according to Forbes, and he is the 30th richest person in Russia.

Lastly, there are reports that the Russian security service will be monitoring all communications during the Games. This goes well beyond the Prism system used by the National Security Agency in the US, and could be used against anyone discussing political views, including gay rights, or business details.

According to the Olympic Charter, ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’