As much as the Olympic Games are about athletic excellence, they are also about pride: national pride for the host country and pride for the teams representing their homelands. No doubt there is pride among smaller groups, as Jews can attest. We wonder how the Israeli team will do at the 2014 Winter Games, which open tomorrow in Sochi, and if there will be any breakout Jewish stars who will bring us joy because we’re members of the same tribe.
But the Games in Sochi are opening under a cloud of concern. There have been terror threats against the Black Sea location at the western edge of Russia’s restive Caucasus Mountains. The United States has taken these threats seriously and has offered to help Russia with security. The Russians, in a display of national pride, rebuffed the offer. But the Munich Games in 1972 showed what happens when terrorists hijack the Olympics and inflict a terrible loss of life.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not the open society that a spectator, whether in person or watching TV, can feel warm and comfortable about. With its dismal human rights record, corruption and adversarial relationship with the United States on a host of major issues, including Syria and Iran, Russia is not an ideal venue.
Putin’s government has spent more than $50 billion to get Sochi ready for the world spotlight. There are reports of mud, unfinished hotels and cost overruns. And more than 300,000 of 1.1 million tickets are reportedly still available.
While the Olympics are getting more expensive, and the political implications of the venue selection and implementation process seem to be increasing, the Games themselves are appearing to diminish in importance. Sure, world records are still the focus, and individual achievements on any stage are always sources of high entertainment, accomplishment and national pride. But in a world of 24-hour sports reporting and play, and the proliferation of sports teams playing every game with intensity and skill, the Olympics is becoming just another set of games. It all seems a lot different than it was two decades ago.
Even acknowledging the foregoing limitations, however, we look forward to the pleasure of seeing the world’s finest athletes compete in skiing, skating, hockey and other cold-weather events. While Russia will remain Russia, we hope our security fears remain unfounded and that the Games take place under blue skies. Let the Games begin!