by Nonye Obi-Egbe
While Twitter is agog with the BBC picture of twin toilets at the Sochi Olympics biathlon centre, many people are still unaware that the 22nd Olympics will hold in Russia beginning 7 February. This is however not the case for many citizens of the former USSR going by the celebrations after Sochi, Russia was selected as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Indeed, Russians couldn’t be bothered about the ignorant few because the rest of the world is converging on Russia this very moment. The last time Russia saw this kind of attention was in 1980, when Moscow, in the then USSR, hosted the Summer Olympics. At that time, the Soviet Union, being the first Eastern European country to act as host, opened the Olympic floodgates to other neighbouring countries. Yet, the victory and enjoyment of the 1980 Summer Olympics was tainted by the decision of 65 countries (led by the U.S.) to boycott the games based on the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Of course, this prompted a retaliatory Soviet-led 14-country boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics hosted by Los Angeles, U.S. and in the same year, initiated the alternative Friendship Games.
Thirty-four years after that first Soviet-hosted Olympics, the country is once again in that limelight and things are getting interesting again. First, the preparations for the games overran an initial US$12 billion budget over four times to settle at US$51 billion. Believe it or not, this cost went into “modernizing the telecommunications, electric power, and transportation infrastructures of the region”; best of all, there are allegations that some of that money went on to line the pockets of some politicians and high-ranking officials. Interestingly, the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, Canada gulped a meagre US$8 billion, but the repairs in Russia far supersede the US$44 billion spent on the 2008 Summer Olympics in China.
The truth about the destination of those expensive kickbacks may never emerge and even though the games are still weeks away, they are already shrouded in controversy. One of such controversies is Russia’s outright ban of any publicity that suggests non-traditional sexual relations. It seems that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community face indiscrimination as well as social and legal challenges. Sad to say, these will soon be the experience of the LGBT community in Nigeria owing to the newly passed aptly termed Anti-Gay Law. Opinions on this topic vary and everyone would like to be heard; however, this writer’s weigh-in on the issue is a matter for another day. Although Putin has opened the doors to homosexuals, in a manner of speaking, another boycott, this time of Western leaders, may be in the offing due to this development.
Perhaps the most contentious issue is the tough decision Olympiads have to make on whether to attend and perform at the games or sit safely at home. A few terrorist groups have made blatant threats to the safety of the attendees of the 2014 Winter Olympics and as kick-off draws closer, a truce is yet to be called. It seems that new threats emerge every few days; groups like the Islamic Jihad Union and Vilayat Dagestan, and the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov have threatened the safety of the games. Furthermore, reports exist of a secret meeting between Putin and the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Bandar allegedly said that if Russia will back off from its support of Syria, he would guarantee protection for the Olympics as the Chechen group that issued a threat is under Saudi control.
Although Russia won’t bow easily, the country is making calculated plans to enhance security before, during and after the games. Law enforcement officials from all sorts of cadres and departments will join forces to ensure the security of all tourists and attendees of the event. Members of the police force, the armed forces and semi-military communities as well as troops from the Ministries of Interior and Emergency Situations will together form the law enforcement and policing body throughout the Olympic and Paralympic games. Such show of strength and force in the face of bullying and terrorisation should be applauded; unfortunately, if the extremists are determined, not much can be done to stop them. This brings to mind Nigeria’s bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Knowing the woe and terror Boko Haram brings us today, what might have happened had we won that bid back in 2007? Well, we may have decisively quashed the hardy group already, or failing that, spent billions of dollars hiring the Israeli Mossad to police the event for us.
All the same, given the rife controversies and threats surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, we should be thankful that Nigeria will not be participating at the games. As Nigerians love life no matter how despondent it may currently be, it would be a shame if when other Olympiads showed solidarity to Russia, Nigerian Olympiads sent in their regrets. Still it would have been a delight to watch the games like everyone else and cheer for every Nigerian that appears on the screen. After all, if we are nothing, we are comrades in arms, all of us fighting this unending war of survival.