Torch obscured by fear, but flame burns on
Olympics shrouded by terrorism threats, controversial politics
Following a tumultuous year, rife with political suppression, prejudicial legislation and threats of terrorism, the Olympic Games - intended to unify the world in a joyous cacophony of (almost) sportsmanlike jeering - begin Friday.
They couldn't come sooner. The world needs an illusion of unity, a job the Olympic Games seem fit for.
Consistent headlines on new dangers facing Sochi, Russia have punctuated front pages in the months preceding what will be a victorious moment for Vladimir Putin. The decision seven years ago by the International Olympic Coalition (IOC) to hold the Games in Sochi came with pledges and high hopes for the success of the Games, which Putin delivered in person.
Putin's personal charm was cranked, based on reports of the event, in a way only a shirtless horseback rider turned post-Soviet force of geopolitical nature could muster. Skirting due diligence and better judgment, the IOC voted for the Games to be held in a city only miles away from the politically fraught region of Chechnya, a place wracked by violence since its second civil war in the 1990s.
Violence spilled into Volgograd, a neighboring city to the north of Sochi, in December when suicide bombings killed over 30 civilians. Since then, Putin's fist has tightened around the area.
Fears have grown to such an extent that the U.S. State Department has warned travelers going to the Games, and The New York Times has cited security experts characterizing this as "the most dangerous games ever."
In response, Russian security forces have formed a dense web around the newly built athletic complexes turned monuments to the postmodern czar. Though security is not the only issue facing Putin's games.
Security from terrorist threats is just the first, but perhaps most palpable, problem.
With each successive nesting doll cracked open, the world is forced to gaze upon another contorted visage, a disheveled character to be dealt with or explained away by the regime.
Legislation enacted against gay "propaganda" has been widely discussed and enforced. Russian officials have been cracking down on activists and frightening gay athletes with threatening rhetoric in the past few months.
The disturbing move serves only to remind how suppressive the administration remains, even as it prepares to host the event with global unity and acceptance as its core tenet.
Even as claims of improperly prepared facilities, abuse of stray dogs and corruption and overspending surface, the torch's flame burns on. The hope remains that the Games will stand as a glimmering event of brotherly sport amid a sea of otherwise wholly unbecoming behavior.
IOC's choices of cities to host the Olympics are often portrayed as less than perfect; there is nothing unique about that.
But Sochi is a bit different. Terrorism has certain acridity to it, and a thinly veiled oppression of a group based on sexual orientation is becoming unthinkable with a rapidity we have scarcely seen before. Putin's grasp around the Olympics is itself the source for the contention obscuring the torch.
We should not forget these problems leading up to the Games. Sochi's problems are largely indicative of the issues facing the world today.
Political suppression. Unchecked state overreach. Violence fueled by longstanding feuds sparked frequently by religious fervor. Repressing groups finally moving toward acceptance. Economic struggles. These are, sadly, universal - more so than we tend to realize.
The Games should stand as a beacon in the thicket of these crises, something to remind us we can rise above as a global community, against what would otherwise shake our confidence in accord and semi-annual harmony.
We reach what we believe to be the center this Friday evening - the lighting of the torch, the opening ceremony and the good-hearted games. We can only hope nothing more menacing lurks deeper.
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