Russian authorities have cracked down on journalists and activists who are bringing to light corruption and overspending, as well as other issues, around the nation’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which open in Sochi in little more than six months, according to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch has cataloged “government efforts to intimated several organizations and individuals who have investigated or spoken out against the abuse of migrant workers, the impact of the construction of Olympics venues and infrastructure on the environment and health of residents, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes,” the group said in a release this week. It has also documented harassment and criminal charges filed against journalists in apparent “retaliation for their legitimate reporting.” The release details multiple Sochi-based journalists and news organizations who have faced intimidation or have been discouraged from covering corruption and spending issues around the Games.
At a cost of $50 billion, the Sochi Olympics will be the most expensive Olympic Games, summer or winter, ever held. While Olympic costs typically have overruns below 200 percent, Sochi’s costs are now 500 percent more than originally forecast, according to one estimate. Workers are making less than $500 a week working on construction projects, and according to Human Rights Watch, they often aren’t paid on time. Most don’t receive safety training or health insurance. And according to activists in Russia, the construction projects are rife with corruption.
The economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics and the World Cup, which comes to Russia in 2018, rarely if ever match the costs. Overspending and corruption has played a role in the massive protests that blanketed Brazil, the host of the 2014 World Cup, this summer. But unlike Russia, Brazil’s government was more tolerant of the protests there. Even if the demonstrations were, at times, accompanied by police brutality, they were embraced at least rhetorically by some of Brazil’s political leaders, and a widespread crackdown on media coverage didn’t occur. But FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, shied away from accepting its role in what caused the protests and even told Brazilians to pipe down, saying Brazil’s problems shouldn’t be about soccer and shouldn’t affect the World Cup, lest its choice to host the event be deemed a mistake.
The International Olympic Committee shouldn’t take a similar tack in Russia. The organization is already facing criticism for its lack of action against Russia’s new anti-gay law — it says it has received “assurances” that the law won’t be enforced but hasn’t gone into detail. But the IOC also guarantees press freedom as part of its Olympic Charter, which says plainly that “media coverage of the Olympic Games shall not be impaired in any way.” If it is serious about that, it needs to demand the same of all coverage around the Olympics, even if it involves news clips about corruption and spending that don’t paint the IOC in a positive light. The IOC is the organization that has chosen to host recent Olympics in countries with less-than-sparkling human rights records. If it’s going to continue down that path, it needs to take action to ensure that those countries improve, or at least that they aren’t committing human rights abuses in order to host the type of Olympic Games the IOC demands.