why #sochiproblems are our problems too

This morning, in the midst of scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, overcome with pride at the numerous Canadian statuses celebrating our country’s early triumph at the winter olympics, I found this article outlining the viral twitter account and hashtag #SochiProblems as an embarrassment for America, not Russia.

As Sarah Kaufman writes, “Under pressure to quickly build a glorious Olympic village from a patch of mud, Russian corporations ended up denying their 70,000 workers wages, sanitary accommodations and, in many cases, basic human rights. As Ukrainian worker Maxim told Human Rights Watch about his experience in construction for the Olympics: ‘People work, they don’t get paid, and leave. Then a bus comes and unloads a fresh group of workers to repeat the cycle.'”

Meaning this chaos, the debris in hotel rooms and unfinished lobbies are a result of workers, people, being denied basic human rights.

And what’s the response? A twitter account to mock this inability to meet an impeccable, impossible Western standard of living that, just by the way, remains a pipe dream for most of the world living in absolute poverty.

I love the Olympics, I do, especially the winter Olympics. I love watching in anticipation as my country demonstrates what nearly 5 months of cold, harsh winter does to our athletes: makes them winners. I love the camaraderie that is born between a nation of fervent hockey fans, as Montreal Habs lovers, Ottawa Sens supporters and even Toronto Maple Leafs fans come together to cheer for our Canadians. The whole country is a sea of red and white, of maple leaf adorned mittens and hats, chests swelled with pride. This is what we do, we are winter.

This year, living in Uganda, I was torn between a desire to watch the Olympics and my contempt at Russia’s utter disregard for LGBT human rights, again for basic human rights. With pride for my country, I watched as mayors of major Canadian cities flew high the rainbow flag at their city halls, a distinct standpoint against anti-LGBT laws. We saw something happening and we dug deeper, we didn’t take it at face value, but rather stood up for those whose rights were being violated, a small show of support.

As I wrap up my eight months in Kampala, Uganda, sad to be leaving a city and country that has taught me infinite amounts about the world and the way in which other countries survive and thrive, I wonder how we got to this point. As a journalist, I have to ask, when did we start seeing conditions like the ones in Sochi and stop asking why? When did we stop asking about where these extravagant standards of living come from, about who contributes to them, and how they’re treated both at the Olympics and in our general, every day lives? Or, quite possibly, did we never ask to begin with?

In our bid for entertainment, it is so crucial to remember that these places we turn into Olympic cities with glamorous venues, restaurants and enormous stadiums, are also people’s homes. People who, in the pursuit of creating a bigger, better, more glorious Olympics than the last, pay the ultimate price.

As AP’s Nataliya Vasilyeva recently wrote, “thousands of ordinary people in the Sochi area put up with squalor and environmental waste: villagers living next to an illegal dump filled with Olympic construction waste, families whose homes are sinking into the earth, city dwellers suffering chronic power cuts despite promises to improve electricity.”

I do believe the Olympics are a great international symbol of sportsmanship, of national pride, but maybe, just maybe these #SochiProblems shouldn’t be a twisted source of humour, but rather a call to action, to look beneath the surface and see more than Olympic grandeur but also the responsibility at a human rights level, of the host country, of all of us, to ensure that we don’t remain ignorant to the high cost – not just in monetary value – of the Olympics.

The water isn’t drinkable? The rooms are unfinished? The bathrooms aren’t up to standard? Hundreds of misplaced coatracks line the halls of lobbies? For the first time, we’re not arriving at the Olympics in a bubble of gleaming surfaces and perfected living quarters, let’s use this opportunity to make ourselves a little more knowledgeable on the process and a little less focused on the outcome.


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