Earlier this week, President Vladimir Putin made an appearance in Sochi. The Black Sea resort, known as the Russian Riviera for its palm trees and balmy weather, will host the most expensive Winter Olympics on record in a year’s time.
The gathering of global correspondents convened hoping, no doubt, that the sportive-prone premier might wrestle a bear, ride bareback or casually demonstrate the art of head-first skeleton racing. No such luck; Putin simply reassured the waiting hackery that plans for the sporting jamboree here, and in the nearby Caucasus mountains, were bang on schedule.
Whether the vast complex, with its Ice Cube arena, 40,000-capacity stadium and impressive skating rinks will be finished is certainly under question. And so are the ethics of the Sochi project. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch launched a report that criticised the Sochi Olympics building spree; it raised concerns of abuses of migrant workers on site. An estimated 16,000 migrant workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Ukraine said they had their passports confiscated and been forced to work 12-hour shifts with very few breaks.
Meanwhile, journalists have said that they have been barred from conducting interviews and intimidated. Many of Sochi’s residents also said they had been forcibly displaced from their homes.
This bleak picture is another blight upon the moral credibility of the Olympic movement; its charter states that it should hold up ethics in sports to promote the so-called "Olympic spirit". The IOC must address more than sporting rules. It needs to engage with the process of building infrastructure that has ethical integrity.
Local residents should be made a priority, whether they are from the Caucasus mountains, historic central Beijing or East London’s industrial hinterlands. In its quest for sporting greatness and urban transformation the Olympics should not forget the people around its epic projects.
On a recent trip to East London’s Hackney Wick I met a business owner who had fought a compulsory purchase order to have his factory moved from what is now the running track of the London Olympic Games. He spoke to me on the production floor of one of London’s oldest fish smokeries about the onerous process of having to up sticks. Even he spoke of intimidation in hushed tones.
Eventually he moved and began repositioning his business plans towards the London games. But when the Olympics were in full flight, despite having created a palm-tree festooned party area in his new premises (just yards from the main stadium), he told me his venue was nearly empty. The Olympics was the undoing of his robust business plan.
The IOC – and indeed anyone planning to watch the events in Sochi or Rio – needs to address this malaise. Feats of sporting prowess should not come at the sacrifice of local society.
Sophie Grove is Monocle’s senior editor.