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Is It Possible to Move the Winter Olympics Away From Russia?

Activists have started circulating petitions to have the games moved out of Russia.

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The Vancouver Olympic Village with Russia’s house, broadcasting their 2014 Winter Olympic bid success. Image: maziar hooshmand

As Russia moves into the final stages of preparation for hosting the Winter Olympics, a movement is heating up to pull the games out from underneath them. Recent violence against homosexuals and a government ban on “pro-gay” activities has people concerned that gay athletes and fans will not be safe at the games. Activists have started circulating petitions to have the games moved out of Russia and have garnered support from high-profile advocates like George Takei and Stephen Fry. But how feasible is a move this late?

Preparing to host the Olympic games is an incredibly expensive venture. The London Olympics cost something like $15 billion to set up. Business Insider estimates that the Winter Olympics in Russia could cost the nation $51 billion, and much of that money has already been spent on building venues and housing and the trappings required for an Olympic game. This budget would make Sochi the most expensive Olympic games ever. For comparison, Vancouver only dropped $6 billion on its 2010 Winter Olympics.

Vancouver is, in fact, the place where many are suggesting the games be moved. The petition that seems to have the most signatures (84,852 at the time of writing this post) says:

We’d like too see the IOC move the games to Vancouver who held them (very successfully) in 2010. The venues are there already so getting them up and running again wouldn’t be too much of a hassle and could be done in the limited time allowed.

But just because Vancouver has hosted the games in the past doesn’t mean its facilities are still in working condition. There’s a long history of Olympic venues being modified for new uses, torn down or abandoned. The speed skating oval has been converted into a massive community recreation center, with gyms and an ice rink. Whistler, the famous skiing area, is used by tourists and visitors throughout the winter.The Olympic Village that Vancouver built has been turned into hard-to-sell apartment units. (The city will probably have to absorb nearly $300 million of the cost of building them.)

And it’s not just physical spaces that have to be sorted out before the games begin. The jockeying for broadcast rights, media coverage and advertising begins long before the buildings are even begun. The rights to broadcast the Olympics is worth over $4 billion dollars to NBC. Ten Network Holding secured the rights to broadcast the Russian games for $20 million. Advertisers have spent millions of dollars, and months planning ads for Sochi.

Some have pushed the International Olympic Committee to refuse Japan’s 2020 Olympic bid due to their dolphin and whale hunting policies. But this is the largest concerted effort to pick up and move an already planned Olympic game.

And the games have never been moved this late. In 1916, the games were supposed to be held in Berlin but were cancelled due to World War I. Similarly, the 1940 Summer Olympics were cancelled when World War II broke out, and the games didn’t resume until 1948. But they’ve never been moved from the host country.

Despite support from the petition, most admit that moving the games away from Russia simply isn’t possible. Yahoo’s sports blog calls the idea “delusional” and the site Think Progress admits that it’s simply not doable. Instead, TP says that the Olympic Committee needs to commit resources to protecting LGBT athletes. Since the games almost surely won’t be moved, LGBT supporters will have to shift their support and energy elsewhere.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Know Your Olympic Mascots
A Guided Tour of Olympic Host Cities

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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