The Sochi Paralympics Could Be the Political Showdown the Olympics Were Supposed to Be

How It Works
March 7 2014 3:22 PM

Tension in Sochi as the Winter Paralympics Begin

Mykailo Tkachenko of Ukraine bears the flag during the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium.

Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The Sochi Winter Games were more politically tense than your average Olympics, though probably less than many were expecting, or hoping. But in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Crimea—just a few hundred miles up the Black Sea coast—has raised the stakes for the Paralympic Games, which kick off today.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Nobody’s completely boycotting the games, but a number of countries, including the United States, France, Norway, and Britain, have decided not to send official delegations to today’s opening ceremony. Ukraine is sending its athletes after strongly considering a boycott, but Valerii Sushkevych, president of the country’s Paralympic committee, said after a meeting with Vladimir Putin that he fears that “during the Paralympic Games we will see something which could not be rectified” take place in Ukraine, in which case the athletes will leave “at that very second.”


During the Olympics, the IOC denied a request by Ukrainian athletes to wear black armbands in honor of those killed during street protests in Kiev, and it will be interesting to see whether there are further political gestures from the team. Already today, the Ukrainian team made a statement by sending out only its flag-bearer, Nordic skier Mykhaylo Tkachenko, in the athletes’ parade at today’s opening ceremony, with the rest of the 23-member delegation staying in their rooms.     

The Sochi Paralympics, the biggest ever held, are meant to highlight Russia’s progress in its treatment of its 13 million citizens with disabilities. Its record on this hasn’t always been so distinguished. In 1980, when Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics, the country simply declined to organize the Paralympics, with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev reportedly saying, "In our country, there are no disabled people."

According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September, in recent years “The Russian government has taken some high profile steps to improve accessibility, but when it comes to daily life – such as going to work or visiting the doctor – people with disabilities face an uphill battle.”

According to the report, Russian accessibility laws are now actually quite strong—and unlike the United States, it has signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities—but Russians with disabilities still face serious barriers related to infrastructure and discrimination.

The Russian media is giving heavy coverage to the games, which Russian athletes have performed quite well at in the past.  

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The NFL Has No Business Punishing Players for Off-Field Conduct. Leave That to the Teams.

Meet the Allies the U.S. Won’t Admit It Needs in Its Fight Against ISIS

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.

Medical Examiner

How to Stop Ebola

Survivors might be immune. Let’s recruit them to care for the infected.


America in Africa

The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.

New GOP Claim: Hillary Clinton’s Wealth and Celebrity Are Tricks to Disguise Her Socialism

Why the Byzantine Hiring Process at Universities Drives Academics Batty

Sept. 23 2014 3:29 PM The Fascinating Origins of Savannah, Georgia’s Distinctive Typeface
  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM America in Africa The tragic, misunderstood history of Liberia—and why the United States has a special obligation to help it fight the Ebola epidemic.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 11:45 PM Why Your Cousin With a Ph.D. Is a Basket Case  Understanding the Byzantine hiring process that drives academics up the wall.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 23 2014 11:37 PM How to Stop Ebola Could survivors safely care for the infected?
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?