Things are heating up in Sochi as the Russians prepare to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Skaters are gliding, lugers are sledding, houses are being demolished and protesters are being exiled to Siberia. With a price tag of $51 billion, stadiums, hotels, railways, bridges, and even illegal apartments have sprouted up around the coastal city of 343,000. But while athletes and spectators will get to enjoy these new facilities in a few months, the little people are getting crushed in the meantime. The infrastructure needed to provide transportation and water to this booming city is proving to be a huge headache, but it’s being dealt with in the usual blunt Russian manner.
Maxim Samokhval watched in helpless silence as bulldozers razed his two-story home, which stood in the path of a proposed highway. “They said we could not prove ownership of our house,” he said in disbelief. “We went to our religious and government leaders, but they couldn’t help us. Some said pray and others said sue.” He didn’t specify who said what, but no matter; the house is no more.
Even homes that are left standing are affected. Tatiana Skyba lives in the hills above the new ice-skating and hockey arenas. She says that one night last April, she and her neighbors were awakened by a terrible noise. A landslide shook the earth, knocking her house off its foundation. The city gave her and her neighbors some money to build new homes. But those houses have started sinking at strange angles. The ground is still moving, and residents point to a rapidly growing dump of construction debris up the hill. City officials say there’s no connection between the dump and the sinking of nearby homes. Of course not. Maybe everyone should have a few rounds of vodka and they won’t notice the tilt anymore.
In political payback to Russian President Vladimir Putin for numerous human rights abuses, President Obama will not be attending the opening Olympic ceremonies. Unlike the official US boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 (after Russia invaded Afghanistan), this time the White House merely put the blame on Mr. Obama’s “busy schedule.” But all this flap over the Olympics reminds me of the much more serious events that surrounded the 1936 games in Berlin, Germany. I want to make clear that in no way do I equate Mr. Putin’s regime with the Nazi Party; there is no government on the face of the earth now that comes close. However, a political uproar also ensued then when there were calls to boycott the Berlin Games over the racist policies of Nazi Germany.
After the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 went into effect, most Americans were aware of the harsh Nazi discrimination against Jews. When the United States Olympic Committee demanded that German Jewish athletes be included in the games, Nazi officials invited the committee’s director to Berlin and assured him of Jewish participation. Helene Mayer, considered to be the world’s greatest fencer, was allowed back on the German team despite her part-Jewish ancestry. Ultimately, although some US athletes sat out in protest, the US sent 312 athletes to the games, including seven Jews and 18 African-Americans.
Foreign visitors arrived in Berlin and found a squeaky-clean city festooned with swastikas and Olympic flags side by side. All undesirable persons had been swept off the streets by police and sent to a special detention camp outside the city. Hitler, ym”s, reluctantly agreed to have the “Jews Not Welcome” signs removed from hotels and restaurants, and even the virulently anti-Semitic Der Stürmer newspapers were yanked from newsstands. But visitors who wanted to speak with local Jews had to contact the Gestapo first, after which they would be closely watched until they departed.
Even media outlets that initially supported the boycott were duped by the Nazi ploy. The New York Times reported that the Games put Germans “back in the fold of nations” and even made them “more human again.” More astute journalists, such as William Shirer, wrote that “the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda” by “putting up a good front for visitors.”
How can two people see one event and come to completely different conclusions? It all comes down to what they want to see. Unfortunately, the world did not choose to see the truth until it was too late, and just a few years after those nations faced each other on the playing field, they were killing each other on the battlefield.