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Sochi Olympics: Skating on very thin ice

Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics is underway, is witness to not just skiing and speed skating but also to a renewal of the Cold War, as relations between Russia and the United States head downhill.

ht view Updated: Feb 22, 2014 00:25 IST
2014 Winter Olympics

For the majority of earthlings, the concept of winter sports is fairly foreign. Even those, like me, who actually live in regions where snowfall is copious, just about the only sport we engage in during the winter is the synchronised sidewalk ice dance, as we attempt to stay upright while our feet get other ideas.

But the Winter Olympics are a big deal in North America; almost as many people watch the televised Games as those in India view a Narendra Modi rally or an Arvind Kejriwal rant. After all, in this season of subzero temperatures, regular folk do want to tune into warmer weather, as in Sochi, where the mercury was between 10 and 15 Celsius more than the freeze in these parts. Fascinating that a country, with Siberia accounting for over three-fourths of the territory, opts for the relatively balmy and slushy Sochi to host the Games.

The International Olympic Committee had some snowballs coming its way over this curious choice, as the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins ranted that “it has an obligation to put the Winter Games in places where the conditions are optimal. Not in a soup bowl.” Sochi venues have been, after all, leakier than current Russian resident (and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize) Edward Snowden.

The news agency AP quoted Sochi 2014 spokesperson Aleksandra Kosterina as gamely looking at the bright side, that they haven’t had to tap into the snow reserves stored on the mountain. Meanwhile, Canadian company IceGen is making snow while the sun shines. As its executive told CTV News about its product: “I would call it spring snow. It’s not fluffy December snow coming out of the sky, it’s the kind of heavy packing snow that you find in the spring. But it’s a lot nicer than cross-country skiing in mud.” That lack of the fluffy stuff, however, may have been oddly comforting to one Canadian athlete, Noah Bowman, who competed in halfpipe skiing despite being allergic to snow.

However, there was plenty of mud-slinging elsewhere. As with the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, there also appeared to be a fixation with the toilet facilities though when the contingents reached the Russian city they may have figured twin sharing referred to their hotel rooms rather than the restrooms with their side-by-side toilets. Late night comic Conan O’Brien quipped, “There are 12 new events in this year’s Winter Olympics, 12. The new events include women’s ski jumping, luge-team relay, and finding a working toilet.”

That’s not the only thing that’s gone down the toilet. India’s sporting reputation, for one, is skating on thin ice as it earned the distinction, definitely dubious, of becoming the first nation to be allowed by the IOC to fly its flag after the Games had commenced.

But Sochi is really a sideshow to a greater game being played out, the renewal of the Cold War, as relations between Russia and the United States head downhill, fast.

Tension in Ukraine persists, and there’s no rainbow over the horizon, unless you count Google’s doodle snookering Russia’s repressive anti-gay laws. Russian villainy has been retooled, as a slew of recent Hollywood releases shows. As the New York Times pointed out, even in the space drama Gravity, featuring just three actors on screen, the “space debris that imperils the American astronauts was caused by a Russian missile”.

As this dynamic unfolds, same as the old dynamic, it claims some unfortunate bystanders not clued into the geopolitically correct reality. Like Canadian speed skater Brittany Schussler, who snapped a selfie with Russian President Vladimir Putin and tweeted, “I should’ve asked him to be my Valentine.” Within minutes, Schussler was trolled into a takedown.

In a recent interview to NBC, American President Barack Obama said of ties with Russia, “I wouldn’t call it icy.” Perhaps frigid would be more fitting. Just about the only warmth in this climate appears to be provided by the weather in Sochi.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal