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Looking at the bright side of Sochi Olympic controversies

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

The buildup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi has been a non-stop collection of public relations disasters. They've been so persistent – and in some cases offensive – that it is hard to see how the Games can possibly reverse the perception of failure.

But before the Sochi Olympics, now exactly 100 days away, are written off as a guaranteed bust, it is worth considering that the world of the Olympic movement is its own beast and that nothing should be taken for granted.

For all the gloomy headlines – tales of mass corruption to human rights abuses, homophobic legislation and unfinished stadiums – it should be remembered that no Games ever had its legacy determined before the event itself.

While Sochi seems like a catastrophe waiting to happen, the same could be and was said about countless Olympics before it – Olympics that have been subsequently lauded for their excellence.

The 2012 London Games seemed impossibly blighted by financial cutbacks caused by the global economic downturn. Mass social unrest caused concern as wide-scale riots took place in the streets of England's major cities a year out from the Olympic torch being lit.

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Four years earlier, the Summer Games in Beijing came under attack for the Chinese government's role in the Darfur conflict and China's acrid levels of pollution, which were expected to cause dangerous respiratory discomfort for athletes. Also, reports of entire neighborhoods being displaced to make way for Olympic venues were exposed.

But, rightly or wrongly, the lingering memories of both those global events are not of social issues, but of Usain Bolt blasting down the track at record-breaking speed or Michael Phelps being draped in yet more gold. That is because as much as the Olympics can highlight social factors – good and bad – they are not an international watchdog for human rights. They are a sporting competition.

The alleged abuses taking place among construction workers in Russia cannot be condoned and many of them appear to be deeply unpleasant. However, it would be a mistake to think that the issue will overshadow the events themselves, or detract from them. What the Olympics thrives and relies on is the fact that once the spotlight shines on the athletes, it will grasp the focus of much of the world's population and hold it until the Closing Ceremony.

If Lindsey Vonn adds to her gold collection and the United States topples the host nation in hockey's group stage in Sochi, no one will much remember the embarrassment of the torch going out and having to be relit with a cigarette lighter.

One thing Russia has done very right, provided Olympic visitors are not faced with political restrictions, is its attempt to make the Sochi Games a fan-friendly experience. The "cluster" system, whereby each of the city venues are within walking distance and all the mountain-top locations similarly accessible from one another, should add to the spectacle of the Olympics.

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Vancouver in 2010 eventually shined through as a wonderful Games, but the manner in which many of the venues in the city itself were spaced out created some logistical headaches for spectators. A clustered arrangement allows fans to feel more connected with events they are not personally able to attend, and the coastal area just to the south of Sochi should provide a hive of activity.

None of this aims to suggest that the negative headlines about Russia, and by extension the Olympics, are unworthy. Many important issues, not just the ones like anti-gay legislation that have dominated media attention to this point, will rightly be given airtime and a wider platform as February moves closer.

However, the Olympics is still the Olympics, and the athletes' tales of heartbreak or ecstasy are the ones that will be front and center for the 17 days of competition.

As for infrastructure issues, there are inevitable concerns over the readiness of the sites, with recent reports insisting the Opening Ceremony stadium still needs much work. But the same was said about Sydney and Beijing and certain venues at Vancouver and London, and those all passed with flying colors. On the flip side, the worst Olympics in recent times – the 2004 Summer Games in Athens where venues still sit derelict – gave little indication of the mismanagement and chaos that was to follow.

Experience tells us it would be more of a worry if there were no pre-Games controversies. Sochi has certainly had no shortage of that.

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