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The Olympics Ignore Russia's Hunger Games

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When I think of the Olympics, I think of the comedian Louis C.K. He has a bit about a friend's country bumpkin cousin visiting New York City for the first time. "We pass a homeless guy and she sees him," he says. "I mean we all passed him but she saw him."

Come Olympic time, I'm that cousin. I can only see how the Games ignore a country's real problems.

I should admit I'm not the athletic type. I gave up on sports when my inability to overhand serve on the Grade 8 volleyball team left me on the bench wearing ugly shorts. I respect athletes as much as the next person who sits for more than 10 hours per day. I think talented athletes deserve an international showcase. But I don't think that showcase should be an excuse to whitewash the host country.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) chief recently said the Games are not for "trying to score points in ... political contests," which makes me wonder if we've been watching the same Olympics. From the host country's perspective, these games have always been about political gain; a chance to shed negative stereotypes and re-brand.

This year, we're supposed to look past cronyism, terrorist threats and discriminatory policy to celebrate "Putin's Games." The president is even doing his best to ensure no rabid dogs will crash the party. And now that the Olympics have actually started, Putin's propaganda machine is on high-speed.

Luckily, there's social media to put a few cracks in our looking glass. The photo tweets from journalists of water that looks like urine and bees stuck in honey packets make the Sochi fiasco more visceral than previous news reports.

Though these #Sochiproblems might seem trivial, the anecdotes have parted the curtain to reveal a slice of the Russia Putin doesn't want the world to see. We should peel it back much further rather than clap for his nationalism. Because the most disgusting aspect of the Olympics is a country's attempt to distract viewers from domestic issues worthy of international attention.

The Olympics have always been a propaganda tool. Britain used the 1908 Games to prove it was the greatest superpower. Hitler promoted racial supremacy during the 1936 Germany event. The 2008 Summer Olympics was China's opportunity to declare itself on the world stage. The IOC doesn't select a host country based on social conscience. It was Putin's promise of $12 billion for a "world class resort" in a "new Russia" that sealed the deal during the 2007 bidding process.

In reality more than $50 billion has been spent to ensure the Olympic bubble is sheltered from Russia's poverty.

To make Sochi Olympic-ready, around 2,000 families in the area were displaced, according to Human Rights Watch. Some stood by as cranes demolished their homes and received no compensation.

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Across the mountains, 100 km from Sochi, lies the North Caucasus. It's the "poorest and most violent region of Russia," according to two journalists barred from the Games because of their reporting. Arnold van Bruggen and Rob Hornstra spent five years documenting ordinary lives for "The Sochi Project" and found the Black Sea resort is flanked by villages where running water and gas is a luxury. In many areas of the region, the unemployment rate is 50 per cent. The average monthly salary is around 300 euros, compared with about 1,500 euros in Moscow.

The situation isn't much better in Russia at large. According to a recent Credit Suisse report, billionaires hold 35 per cent of the nation's wealth, almost the highest level of income inequality in the world. While the study's authors and others have acknowledged the difficulty of measuring wealth in Russia, no one disputes the economic divide in a nation rife with crony capitalism.

Putin hasn't put much effort into creating safety nets for the poor. St. Petersburg, Russia's second biggest city at nearly five million people, has just one homeless shelter with 52 beds. Around 70,000 people sleep outside each night and roughly 1,000 of them die every year.

You might say I'm missing the point because hosting the Olympics is good for a country's economy. But it isn't. Economics professor and author Stefan Szymanski told me "it's a very temporary phenomenon ... simply a feel-good buzz." His research found the Games have no long-term benefits (see: Greece). Instead, they leave a host country with structures athletes won't use and tourists don't care about.

The Olympics is a good opportunity to learn about a different culture. But once the flag-waving starts, we too often buy into the facade of a country's prosperity to more easily celebrate athleticism. The real Sochi narrative is that Putin's party is falling apart because it was built on the backs of Russia's less fortunate. If you take off the sports goggles, that much is clear.

This article previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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