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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 30, 2014
Sochi Winter Olympics
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Great Expectations
January 30, 2014   
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The approaching winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, may well turn out to be unprecedented, not only in terms of the cost of organizing the Games, but also in terms of medals won by Polish athletes.

Probably never before in the history of the Winter Olympics did the Polish Olympic squad have as many realistic medal chances.

Some say the 59 Polish athletes competing at Sochi stand a good chance of bringing home 10 medals, as many as the over 200-member Polish party brought from the London summer Olympics in 2012.

So far Poland has won 14 medals during winter Olympics, including six in the last Games in Vancouver, Canada, four years ago, in which 47 Polish competitors took part.

The Polish Olympic team has never been so strong, at least on paper. Sports minister Andrzej Biernat says he expects Polish athletes to bring around 10 medals from Sochi. Apoloniusz Tajner, chairman of the Polish Ski Association and head of the Polish Olympic party, says it is reasonable to expect up to 12 medals.

The biggest hopes are being pinned on top cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk, who some say can be realistically expected to win three medals, and ski jumper Kamil Stoch, who will take part in two individual competitions and a team competition. Other medal hopes are biathlete Krystyna Pałka, speed skater Zbigniew Bródka, and the men’s and women’s speed skating teams. Plus freestyle skier Karolina Riemen-Żerebecka, who may turn to be a dark-horse contender and grab a medal in the ski cross, according to Biernat.

Money matters

Biernat says the sports ministry has spent more than zl.114 million euros to support Polish winter sports and help athletes prepare for Sochi between 2010 and 2013. The Polish Ski Association took the biggest piece of the pie, more than zl.42 million. Tajner says that while this amount works out at about zl.10 million annually, the annual budget of Norwegian cross-country skiers alone is zl.25 million euros.

Meanwhile, the Polish Olympic Committee has promised to fork out zl.120,000 for every gold medal won by a Polish athlete at Sochi, zl.80,000 for silver, and zl.50,000 for bronze when they compete on their own, not as part of a team; in team sports, the payouts will be zl.90,000, zl.60,000 and zl.37,500 respectively for each team member. The medal-winning athletes’ coaches are eligible for zl.60,000, zl.40,000 and zl.25,000 respectively. This means that if Kowalczyk, for example, manages to win one gold, one silver and one bronze, which is a realistic prospect, she will pocket a quarter of a million zlotys altogether.

To compare, the Russians have promised to pay their athletes 4 million rubles (about zl.400,000) for a gold medal, 2.5 million rubles for silver, and 1.7 million rubles for bronze.

Thinking big

The 22nd Olympic Winter Games in Sochi will be held Feb. 7-24. Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to make the games a showcase for his country’s technological prowess and organizational savvy more than two decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The organizers dismiss any thought that something could wrong, but there have been setbacks.

The Sochi Olympic torch relay marks the longest torch relay in Olympic history, but has been marred by the flame going out repeatedly. The flame went out minutes after the relay was launched in October as a former Soviet swimming champion jogged with it through an archway into the Kremlin. A quick-thinking plainclothes guard saved the day—with an American cigarette lighter.

The Olympics have been divided into two “clusters”—the ice cluster at Sochi and the snow cluster at Krasnaya Polyana, about 39 km away. Especially for the Olympics, 11 new sports facilities have been built, including a stadium for 40,000, an ice palace for figure skating and short track events (accommodating 12,000 spectators), two ice arenas for hockey games (a large one seating 12,000 and a small one for a crowd of 7,000), a speed skating stadium (seating 8,000), an indoor curling arena (3,000 seats), a biathlon and cross-country skiing center, two ski jumping hills, an alpine ski center, a center for luge, bobsleigh and skeleton track events, and a snowboarding park.

In 1980, the Russians invested $9 billion to expand and modernize their sports facilities and infrastructure ahead of the summer Olympics in Moscow. At the time, the government picked up the tab without looking for private sponsors to help finance the projects. The Sochi Games have so far cost $50 billion, more than all 21 winter Olympics worldwide so far put together and more than any Olympic summer games. The Adler-Sochi-Krasnaya Polyana road alone claimed a staggering $2 billion—more than the U.S. mission to Mars—and the winter palace for figure skating competitions cost $23,000 per spectator—nearly three times more than in the case of similar facilities in other countries. But money was apparently no object when it came to holding the Games in Russia—especially as some of it has reportedly been siphoned off by the country’s oligarchs or ended up in the private pockets of various officials. Rather than money, it is the state of preparations for the Olympics that has likely caused President Putin sleepless nights.

Alarm bells

A year before the Games were due to begin, Putin, alarmed by news reports, made a trip to Sochi. Instead of finished facilities he saw construction sites in disarray and piles of bills awaiting payment. Heads began to roll. Putin immediately fired those managers who had not managed to flee abroad. However, he did not manage to silence protesting environmentalists, who accused him of destroying nature around Sochi and of contributing to climate change by digging tunnels in the mountains in a project that let in hot, subtropical air from the coast and increased the temperature by several degrees. Nor was he able to silence residents in areas around Sochi, who had been expelled from their homes to make room for the construction of an ice skating rink and the Olympic Village. Those who stayed will probably be unable to leave their homes throughout the Olympics for security reasons.

Human rights organizations began blowing the whistle on circumstances surrounding the construction of Olympic facilities at Sochi. They claimed that tens of thousands of workers from Central Asian countries, Armenia, Serbia and Ukraine were used for slave labor during the construction project. Intermediaries reportedly would take away workers’ documents so that they could not leave the country. Laborers allegedly worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $400 a month, and sometimes did not get paid at all.

Protests and boycotts

Putin’s strong-arm approach to the Games has been compared by some of his critics to Nazi propaganda during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936. But back then hardly anyone had the courage to oppose Adolf Hitler. Today things are different. During a gay parade in Sweden, Putin was likened to Hitler, and leaders from a number of countries, in protest against what they see as Putin’s anti-gay policies, have refused to attend the opening ceremonies or are ostentatiously sending delegations composed of openly gay officials.

Those who have decided against flying to Sochi include French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck, and Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European commission. Polish President Bronisław Komorowski will not go to Sochi either. There are no top White House officials in the U.S. delegation. Instead, the delegation includes former tennis star Billie Jean King, who is openly lesbian.

Fortress Sochi

Speculation has been growing about possible terrorist attacks during the Games. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities have declared that the Olympic Village is the safest place on earth—or least the best guarded one.

Sochi is located between the Black Sea and a mountain range. Practically speaking, only one road and one railway line lead there, and the organizers are offering assurances that not even a mouse will slip through. Since Jan. 7 Sochi has been closed to traffic. Only official Olympic vehicles can move around there. Earlier all suspicious-looking individuals, mostly immigrants, were evicted from the city. But attacks in the city of Volgograd (once known as Stalingrad and the site of the famous World War II battle against Nazi Germany), less than 700 kilometers from Sochi, have caused panic. More than 30 people were killed there in two suicide attacks, at a railway station and on a trolleybus. Suspected of staging these bombings are North Caucasian Islamists from Dagestan and Chechnya who have threatened to stage attacks on Olympic facilities. It’s hard to ignore such threats, especially since the Boston Marathon bombings carried out by two brothers hailing from Dagestan on April 15, 2013.

The final countdown

At the beginning of the year, Vladimir Putin played a friendly hockey match with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko while visiting Olympic venues. Although some of these venues still looked like big construction sites, Putin declared that “everything is largely finished.” However, while visiting the Roza Khutor alpine ski center and the RusSki Gorki ski jumping center, the Russian leader did not hide his dissatisfaction with delays in the construction project and constantly rising costs.

“What matters most is to make sure that nobody steals anything,” said Putin with a disarming smile. Reports published in Russia indicate that bribes have accounted for half the cost of the Olympics. But at least there will be no lack of snow—the Russians have been stockpiling it for months, just in case.

Agnieszka Dokowicz
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