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The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics was officially launched by Russian president Vladimir Putin two weeks ago. It is the first Winter Olympics in Russia, and the first games since the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow (back in the old Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991), so it’s a big event for Russia. However, the event has been marred by a series of controversies, even before the opening ceremony.

What’s Sochi like?

Unlike most of Russia, Sochi has a subtropical climate that keeps it warm for most of the year – not the most natural choice for a Winter Olympics. Nevertheless, its relatively mild weather and beaches have made it a popular holiday destination for Russians, drawing a reported two million visitors each summer, compared to a population of around 350,000.

Who’s participating?

There are 88 participating nations, with around 2,800 athletes. Malaysia has never participated in the Winter Olympics, naturally. There are a total of 98 events this year, 12 of which are new. Incidentally, British Violinist Vanessa Mae is competing for Thailand at Sochi in the downhill skiing event, under the name Vanessa Vanakorn (her Thai birth father’s surname). An avid skier since childhood, Mae qualified just in time for Sochi.

What’s with the controversy?

Let’s see… Where do we start? Well, there’s the controversy over Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda laws (passed just over half year before the Games), which many felt would just worsen the existing hate violence against the LGBT community in Russia. Not very much in the spirit of the Olympic Charter, which states that “discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”.

In late 2013, a double suicide bombing in Volgograd had alarm bells ringing about a major terror threat. Putin responded by spending US$2bil (RM6.6bil) on extra security, creating a military “ring of steel” around Sochi.

The Games organisers solution to Sochi’s stray dog problem also triggered an uproar – they wanted to exterminate them all. The company contracted for the job admitted to using poison and traps. Thankfully, Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska stepped in to fund a private shelter for the dogs.

The Olympic Games are known to be extremely costly, but critics have estimated that this year’s Games will cost more than all previous 21 Winter Olympics put together. A total of US$51bil (RM170bil) had been spent by October 2013. Still, journalists who arrived at the Games set Twitter abuzz with posts on just how poor conditions were. One tweeted that there was no running water, and that even if there was, the front desk told not her to use it on her face as “it contains something very dangerous”.

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