The Winter Olympics torch will finally be lit in Sochi, Russia Friday morning after months of preparation and controversy in a political climate tense with terrorist threats and gay-rights protests.
Often overshadowed by its corresponding Summer Games, Sochi 2014 is a Winter Olympics in which the buildup has been well publicized. Yet instead of discussion about athletic ability, much of the media attention has been concerned with security fears, discrimination against gay athletes and the huge expense of the event.
Russia reportedly has spent $51 billion, making it the most expensive Olympic Games ever, bypassing the historic Beijing Summer Olympics budget of 2008 by about $10 billion.
Dr. Jenelle Gilbert, a Fresno State sports psychology professor, said the publicity heading into the Sochi Games has the potential to impact the athletes negatively.
“Sport does not exist in a vacuum. Neither do politics,” Gilbert said. “Thus, it may be difficult for some athletes to ignore the political climate.”
Threats of terrorism from Islamist militants have caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to deploy additional security forces. A reported 40,000 personnel are safeguarding the games. However, kidnapping threats to two Austrian athletes already sparked concern.
With 294 medals up for grabs in 98 different events, Gilbert said while there are added “layers of complexity for these Winter Games,” the athletes train to focus with sport psychologists.
“Olympic and Paralympic athletes have a job to do, which is to train and compete to their fullest while representing their country,” Gilbert said. “They must be thinking about their event and not let any outside issues cause them to lose focus.
“Athletes train physically and mentally, often times for a lot longer than four years.”
Yet regardless of such training, Gilbert suggested there is always some expectation for athletes to enter into the political argument and “take a stand.”
“Some do expect athletes to enter into this debate, especially concerning gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender issues,” she said.
Concern over gay rights in Russia escalated last year when Putin introduced new laws that banned information about homosexuality being shown to people under 18. Sochi’s Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov recently said homosexuals were welcome to the Games as long as they respect Russian law and “don’t impose their habits on others.”
In midst of such controversy, Gilbert said that while athletes are considered role models, it could be unsafe to be outspoken.
“Though we may be opposed to Russia’s laws, the safest stand for non-Russian Olympic and Paralympic athletes to take is the one where they receive a medal for their efforts,” Gilbert said.
Braulio Mendoza, a junior kinesiology major, thinks politics have no place in sports.
“It’s a sporting event. It should be held sufficiently just for sports,” Mendoza said. “There shouldn’t be any kind of political movements during a traditional, international participation games.”
While agreeing with Mendoza, junior Enrique Lomeli also says political involvement is inevitable.
“Even though I don’t think politics should be involved, it’s something that you can’t help,” Lomeli said. “It ties in there somehow.”