With barely 100 days left until the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia is scrambling to make all the pieces fit together. It will play host to approximately 2,800 athletes from over 80 countries — a tremendous logistical challenge — while demanding a budget of $50 billion, the largest in the history of the games. The epicenter is Sochi, a small resort town on the coast of the Black Sea located near the Caucasus Mountains. There, though, Russia literally had to build infrastructure from scratch — including highways, a new railroad station, tourist centers, hotel buildings, the Olympic village and the massive domes and arenas of the Olympic Park.

While the budget and construction certainly capture our attention, the most charged aspect of the hullabaloo has traditionally been the politics, not the logistics. Past Olympics have revealed the scars of international crises, with some troubled by boycotts, shootings and civil unrest. Munich bore witness to the Black September hostage crisis in 1972. Atlanta shook with the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. China was heavily criticized for its poor human rights record when it hosted in 2008,and Brazil is bound to face increased scrutiny about its poverty and favela sweeps in preparation for the 2016 games.

For the next few months, all eyes are on Russia, a country plagued by its own domestic problems and controversies. One of the main issues on the table is Russia’s derogatory policies toward the LGBTQ community, who suffer political and social discrimination. In fact, Putin signed a law this past June that imposes fines on people who publicly promote same-sex relationships. When several countries threatened to retaliate by boycotting the Games, Putin deftly sidestepped the issue, assuring the international community that all are welcomed to Sochi and that the safety of gay athletes, fans and journalists will be protected.

Another salient issue concerns the North Caucasus, where Russia has fought a prolonged war against the Chechnya insurgency. Sochi’s location near the zone of conflict makes it a possible terrorist target. Indeed, a series of recent bus bombings in southern Russia serves as a potent reminder of the conflict’s dark past, and Doku Umarov — a prominent bomb maker and Russia’s most wanted man — promises to use “maximum force” to disrupt the Games, which he calls a “Satanic dancing on the bones of our ancestors.” Sounds bleak, doesn’t it?
Although I have full confidence that Russia can keep its security tight, the political milieu surrounding the Games does help put things in perspective. It makes you think: To what extent are the Olympics actually about sports? Over the years, the medal count and highlight reels have taken a back seat to some riveting political storylines. Was the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” really about a hockey game, or was it about two superpowers battling for world dominance? Were Tommie Smith and John Carlos just two medal winners in 1968, or were their raised fists representative of a bold civil rights movement? Is Russia’s hosting of next year’s event just about putting on an entertaining show, or are there political and economic motives coursing through Sochi’s veins? The Olympics are not simply about sports. There is a lot more at stake than what meets the eye.

With this in mind, international athletic competitions like the Olympics achieve a remarkable feat. In an era of political infighting, border disputes and diplomatic stalemates, a hockey game or bobsled race can usher us under the same roof. In a fashion that is much more subtle than a United Nations summit or a nuclear energy conference, sports can bring together Americans with their political enemies to watch an event that is not so polarizing or offensive. And of course, the Olympics force the host to clean up its act a bit. Sochi gives Russia a good reason to clean up its streets, make a blockbuster economic investment and adjust its foreign policy perspective. It also gives us an opportunity to uncover some of Russia’s bruises while giving Russia an incentive to seek reconciliation.

It is not all peaches and cream. At the very least, however it gives countries a chance to cooperate, without demanding that they pretend to like each other. Of all things, that might be the most impressive achievement of the Olympic Games.

Nick Fedyk is senior in the College. More Than a Game appears every Friday.

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