Sochi Medalists
Women's bobsled silver medalists Elana Meyers (left) and Lauryn Williams (right). (Photo by Getty Images)

by Jillian Torre

Imagine dedicating your life to one purpose. Imagine training eight hours a day, six days a week for as long as you can remember. You’ve sacrificed all your time and money for the chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious competition. A month before the biggest moment of your life, controversy is stirring, and you have to decide whether the moment you’ve literally lived for is worth endangering your life. Should you take the risk and go? Or were the years of blood, sweat, and tears all for nothing?

For Olympians at the Sochi Winter Games, this question was one they had to ask themselves. The world questioned the International Olympic Committee’s decision to name Sochi, Russia, this year’s host city. Was it fair to the athletes that for some, their only chance for gold was in such a controversial city?

The list of controversies surrounding Sochi goes on and on, but let’s start with the smallest problem: stray dogs. The city was swarmed with them. Euthanasia was Russia’s solution to this ruff interruption. Did this problem directly affect the world’s best athletes? No. But some pro animals’ rights Olympians, such as USA hockey player David Backes, did manage to bring a few pups back home, according to NPR.

Another not-so-severe, but highly annoying, disturbance were the hotels. Hotels, mostly those where the media was lodging, were not exactly ready for visitors. Unfinished rooms, undrinkable water, no Internet, and bedrooms used as check-in desks because the lobbies were incomplete were only a few of the hotels’ dilemmas. Again, this does not directly influence athletes, although they were given a break from the press while the media was busy tweeting about the less than satisfactory conditions.

The weather definitely had an affect on the athletes’ and their performances . Sochi is a coastal resort city with humid subtropical weather—not exactly ideal for a Winter Olympics. Temperatures ranged from low 50s to high 60s. Snowboarders and skiers stripped down in between runs to cool off, while those in New York were shoveling their cars out from two feet of snow in below-freezing temperatures. The high temperatures took a toll on the slopes, especially the halfpipe. Snowboarders like Shaun White and Hannah Teter both complained of the terrible conditions.

“They should push it back is what they should do, and fix it, and showcase snowboarding the way it needs to be showcased,” Teter told the LA Times. “Not as a junk show, which is what it is looking like right now.”

White partly blames the circumstances on his disappointing fourth place finish; he had won gold in the halfpipe event in the Vancouver and Torino Games.

How can the most esteemed athletic competition of all time have slopes in worse conditions than the hills on the Mount Saint Mary College campus?

A more serious issue was Russia’s laws against the LGBT community. “Propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” was banned in Russia in June 2013. Disobeying this law can result in fines up to $150 dollars for individuals and $30,000 dollars for corporations. Promotion of such subject matter by a foreigner can result in heftier fines and possible imprisonment and deportation, according to the Council for Global Equality.

Western countries were furious over Russia’s LGBT policy, so much so, many were saying their country should boycott the Olympics. While I agree that Russia’s attitude toward this community is inhumane, who’s to say if everything an athlete’s work for should be for nothing? It would not be fair to the athletes if they were forced to withdraw from the Olympics because its host country is not as progressive as us. Remember when being gay was taboo in our country? It wasn’t too long ago.

While no athletes chose to boycott the games because of these anti-gay laws, Bella Backhoff, an Australian snowboarder, came out publicly before the games in protest of Russia’s laws. Most LGBT competitors were not as brave as Backhoff and chose to participate in the games without publicizing their sexual orientation. Was it fair that they had to choose between competing and hiding who they are or sitting out from the opportunity of a lifetime?

These problems all add up, but terrorism is the biggest reason the IOC shouldn’t have chosen Sochi. Sochi is located on the border of a war zone. Islamic extremists terrorize the area in and around Chechnya to pursue their goals of gaining independence and their own Islamic state.

A month before the games began, a suicide bomber blew up a bus in Volgograd, killing 34 people. The Russian government received a video from the two suspected bombers who said there are attacks planned for the Olympics if President Valdimir Putin didn’t call off the games. Black Widows, Muslim women who were trained to avenge their husbands’ deaths with suicide bombs, were thought to have infiltrated the Olympic area before the games began, as reported by CNN. Russia hung posters all over the city with photos of the women.

No countries boycotted because of this, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t much hesitation. The U.S. government warned American athletes not to publicize their nationality or to draw attention to themselves. The Australian government suggested their athletes not attend, but if they did, they were banned from traveling outside the Olympic radius to downtown Sochi.

The games concluded without a single casualty. Russia’s seven-million-dollar investment security plan paid off. But was it right that countries had to discourage their athletes from competing? Was it fair every single athlete had to ask themselves if competing in their life goal was worth risking their lives? They should have never had to make that tough decision. This is the Olympics, not the military. Athletes don’t sign up thinking their lives could be on the line.

Any aspiring Olympic athlete dedicates his or her life to that one goal. U.S. bobsled driver Jazmine Fenlator told the Boston Globe she personally spends around $80,000 a year to compete. “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket and I’m going for broke. At the end of the day, if I’m in debt for it, then I am. But the glory of the journey is worth it for me. I have the rest of my life to work at a desk and do what I need to do to pay that debt off. I only have this limited time now to push myself to the max,” she said. While training in Switzerland, Fenlator would sometimes sacrifice doing laundry to pay for a new pair of bobsled spikes.

Women’s moguls gold medalist Hannah Kearney said she lives at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., for five months every year to train and cut costs. She receives free room and board at the center but it still costs her $50,000 annually to compete.

Financial setbacks aren’t the only sacrifice these athletes make. Gymnast Gabby Douglas moved away from her family in Virginia Beach, V.A., at 14 to train with Coach Liang Qiao in Wes Des Moines, Iowa. She spent two years living with a host family. For Douglas, this paid off; she came home from London with two gold medals. But would her outcome been different if the London Games were surrounded with as much controversy as the Sochi Games?

Sochi seemed to provide one issue after another, and for Olympians to sacrifice so much and have to deal with bad snow conditions, human rights turmoil, and the threat of terrorism is just not fair. Qualifying for the Olympics should be a time for celebrating, not a time when you have to ask yourself, “is it worth it?”