Sochi, the Olympics, politics, and human rights — again

Sochi, the Olympics, politics, and human rights — again
I must admit I’m looking forward to the finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics. Canada versus Russia would be perfect — with a whiff of nostalgia from 1972 and the Summit Series. Who can forget the thrill of Paul Henderson’s goal for Team Canada that Moscow night with just 34 seconds left to play in game eight of that groundbreaking series?

That was sport — and politics — at its finest, arguably a nation-building moment for Canada with an exclamation mark in the midst of the Cold War.

It’s certainly nothing new that sport and politics, like culture, combine. This is obviously so in competitions between nation-states. The Olympic Games epitomize this, and everyone knows it. Whether the 1936 Berlin Olympics where Hitler’s Nazis spent exorbitantly to host the world with an intended Aryan display of domination — spectacularly foiled by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals on the track — or the boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games, the Olympics have been at the centre of major political competitions and statements as much as they have been about athletic exploits on the field of sporting play.

So it should come as no surprise the Sochi Olympics have raised a major contemporary issue in terms of the politics, and especially the rights and freedoms, of sexual orientation, privacy, expression, non-discrimination, equality, and, more broadly, socio-political development.

The coincidence of Russian Federation adoption of repressive public policy and laws regarding homosexuality when about to host the 2014 Winter Olympics offered, naturally, the occasion and opportunity for the engaged and viewing world to query Russia’s position and the appropriateness of it hosting the Games . . . and of everyone else to attend.

Despite some calls for a boycott, or widespread public expressions of condemnation including from participating athletes, as well as high-profile if somewhat subtle “protests” by companies such as Google (with its rainbow doodle on the opening day of the Games), real action appears relatively modest and ineffectual beyond valuable awareness-raising. As a matter of fact, the Games are on and going fine. We’re all having fun, right?

Perhaps not. Certainly not for those whose welfare and well-being has been directly compromised by the Games, notably their staging and funding. That’s likely very political for those negatively affected, and it happens also to be a matter of their human rights.

I don’t mean lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. The repressive Russian policy and law is obviously a problem, and contrary to an array of applicable international standards. That’s now inescapably “out,” and rightly so. But the far greater violation is the profligate expense that exceeds any reasonable proportion not least in a country whose population faces enormous needs in areas of health, education, employment, and much more.

This is to say nothing of the people displaced from their homes and property as a result of the Olympic construction or of huge security controls and sweeps in breach of various civil rights and freedoms — both common features of such massive events.

This is not a matter of some external imposition of foreign standards. For well over 40 years, the Russian Federation (as the successor state of the USSR) has been bound by its voluntary accession to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which provides in Article 2, in relevant part, as follows:

“Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international cooperation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant. . . .”

By spending reportedly US$51 billion(!) on the Sochi Olympics it seems prima facie incontestable that Russia has not exactly taken steps “to the maximum of its available resources” to provide, inter alia, for the education, health care, employment, or other rights and freedoms stipulated in the covenant.

Of course, sport and culture are also foreseen in the covenant, but the principle of proportionality requires that public policy choices be exercised in such a way as to ensure equality of access, enjoyment, and opportunity for all beneficiaries vis-à-vis all human rights — some of which are arguably more important (such as life-saving health care) than others (such as some sporting opportunities for a tiny elite).

To be sure, states enjoy the sovereign right to determine their economic policies including spending programs, within the constraints of their voluntarily accepted obligations and commitments, including human rights. This is a matter of public international law. The Olympic Charter also incorporates these ideas and more.

Specifically, the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” include social responsibility, preservation of human dignity, and the prohibition of discrimination on any ground including gender. Strikingly, Article 4 of the Olympic Charter prescribes as follows:

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

As a matter of fact, it is obvious that only a very few people (and possibly not so many Russians) will ever come close to enjoying “the possibility of practising sport” on, say, the US$2-billion downhill ski course above Sochi! Indeed, it’s arguable, as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s determination to pour fully 2.5 per cent of Russia’s GDP into these games, millions of Russians won’t even enjoy a decent soccer pitch on which to run or, more to the point, adequate health care to be able to run.

To get the perspective right, some comparators are in order. The cost of the Sochi Olympics amount to almost 40 per cent of global overseas development spending in 2012, and three-quarters of development assistance to the African continent.

While global overseas development assistance continues to shrink, Putin’s indulgence with these games surpasses in expenditure the total GDP of all but seven of the 54 states of the African Union.

In other terms, the Sochi Olympics amount to 135 per cent of the total valuation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — the world’s largest philanthropy. According to the Borgan Project, just US$30 billion, or less than 60 per cent of the cost of the Sochi Olympics, would in one year eliminate world hunger. Or, to take another example, around 5-10 per cent of the total cost of the Sochi Olympics would, in a 10-year period, eliminate malaria which is a preventable disease that kills around 750,000 people every year.

While Russia and Putin are not responsible for solving all the world’s ills, they are responsible for addressing the human rights of all persons within their jurisdiction and without discrimination. Such excessive spending for two weeks of elite sporting games — double the total expenditures on Russia’s education system and approaching the same expenditure for Russia’s entire health-care system — is simply disproportionate and in effect discriminatory.

Sadly, Russia is only the latest in a line of hosts of major events with skyrocketing costs that defy justification in terms of public policy and human rights. Just three Olympiads after Salt Lake City’s US$2.5-billion Olympic Games, the costs of such events is now truly obscene. This is surely a matter for serious politics, including the effective implementation of human rights.

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