Monday, March 3, 2014

Sochi Not A Fit Olympic Host

The decision to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was met with much criticism. The major criticism is that Russia perpetuates human rights violations, and thus is unsafe for Olympic athletes. While much has been said about the country’s newly minted anti-LGBT laws, I feel that their egregious breeches of disability rights are ultimately why if we believe that a host country has a duty to provide a safe environment for Olympic visitors, then we must find it objectionable to hold the Olympics in Russia, given that an Olympic host country hosts subsequent Paralympic games. While some may counter that Russia hosting the Olympics will help improve disability accessibility and disabled rights in the country, I posit that this is misguided, and the Olympics only provide a façade of accessibility.

One very vocal objection about holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi was that the Russian legal system, and particularly the recent so-called “anti-gay propaganda” law, undermines the legal safety of the LGBT athletes and spectators who participate in the Olympics. Russian officials quickly countered that their current laws do not undermine the dignity and safety of LGBT visitors, maintaining that the participants’ safety is assured[1]. While the truth of the official’s claim can certainly be debated, the fact that the issue was addressed solidifies the notion that the Olympic community believes a host country has a duty to provide a safe environment for the athletes.

If we agree an Olympic host city maintains this duty, it should extend to those participating in the Paralympics, given that the Paralympic Games take place each year in conjunction with the Olympics, utilizing the host country’s newly created Olympic Facilities. The International Olympic Committee and related International Paralympic Committee have agreed that a host city has a responsibility to provide “an environment without barriers, accessible by all.”[2] If this is a standard to which we hold a host city, Sochi is objectionable.

A major component of safety is having an environment one can navigate and ambulate in freely in case a situation arises where one needs to escape. When considering accessibility, Sochi is ill equipped to handle the influx of disabled visitors who include not only disabled athletes but also many disabled spectators, who revel in the international camaraderie fostered by the Paralympic games. Extraordinary accessibility problems like the one recently faced by Olympic bobsledder Johnny Quinn provide dramatic images of a crashed-through bathroom door and a funny story for the media[3], but such a scenario easily could have played out with more sinister consequences if the imprisoned party had been a guest with a mobility-impairment. This example may seem like an outlier, but reports by the Human Rights Watch indicate that Sochi’s disabled residents regularly encounter things such as un-serviced elevators and crumbling, inaccessible sidewalks every day.[4] With Sochi’s environment so inhospitable to the mobility of disabled people, it cannot be considered a safe space for them. This is objectionable for an Olympic/Paralympic host city.

Those in favor of Sochi hosting the Olympics/Paralympics argue that these games could signify a series of good changes for a country that only three decades ago declined to host the Paralympics under the pretense that there were “no invalids in the USSR[5],” and that Sochi2014 may be a progressive force for disability access in the country. They argue that the games may help drive institutional changes that will better improve accessibility in the nation’s future. This seems to be the stance adopted by the International Paralympic Committee. In an online publication, the International Paralympic Committee states that they hope the games will provide “a unique opportunity to enhance social inclusion, tolerance to diversity and active citizenship among... members.” It maintains a host city should encourage the “equity, dignity, and functionality” of all involved in the games by removing social, political, and physical barriers.[6] The IPC has clear hopes that the 2014 games will help establish a standard for progressive thought in the country regarding policies that affect the disabled.

I wish to argue that the changes being made for the games do not guarantee the safety of current disabled Olympic/Paralympic visitors, due to deeper problems of discrimination embedded within the infrastructure. Measures being taken like installing ramps, elevators, handrails and Braille signage provide a façade of accessibility around the newly created buildings, but continue to have accessibility issues with things like accessible building dimensions. Worse, many local buildings have been given a designation of “handicap accessible” by the local government, but have no accessible provisions whatsoever other than the ubiquitous handicapped sign.[7] Sochi residents report major problems trying to traverse public transportation, encountering a pervasive attitude that disabled people should not travel.[8] Complaints made to the local government about accessibility barriers have been largely ignored, which is allowed according to the wording of the laws.[9] These cases illustrate problems within the local hegemony about perceptions of disability and what attention should be paid to the needs of disabled people. While progress in improving accessibility for disabled people is commendable, the veneer of accessibility presented by Russia in Sochi does not accomplish enough to guarantee the safety of disabled visitors it’s obligated to provide.

There was much discussion over the safety of LGBT Olympic visitors in Sochi, since both the international community and Russia consider safety to be important. The conditions in Sochi are unsafe for disabled people. If we believe that an Olympic host city has a duty to protect the safety of the Olympic visitors, then we must consider it objectionable for Sochi to host the Olympics. While some argue that hosting the Olympics be a catalyst for progressive change in Russia, the superficial changes within Sochi do not make the city safe for disabled people, since they do not address deeper societal issues that make the town unsafe.

[1] Smith-Spark, Laura and Nic Robertson. "Putin Says Gays ‘Can Feel Safe’ at Sochi Winter Olympics." CNN, January 17, 2014. .

[2] “Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People With Disabilities in Russia.” Human Rights Watch, 11. September 11, 2013.

[3] Karimi, Faith. “Trapped in Sochi Bathroom, Bobsledder Punches Hole in Door.” CNN. February 10, 2014.

[4] “Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People With Disabilities in Russia.” Human Rights Watch, 7. September 11, 2013.

[5] Ellingworth, James. “Russia’s Journey From “No Invalids” to Paralympic Champions.” Russia Beyond The Headlines.

[6]“IPC Handbook Paralympic Games Chapter.” International Paralympic Committee, 31. Accessed: February 17, 2014.

[7] Mazzarino, Andrea. “100 Days Before Paralympics in Sochi, Barriers Remain for Disabled Athletes.” Global Post.

[8] Lokshina, Tanya. “Breaking Barriers: The Disability Rights Movement in Russia.” Human Rights Watch. Accessed: February 17, 2014.

[9] “Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People With Disabilities in Russia.” Human Rights Watch, 11. September 11, 2013.

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