Image 1 of 8: The meteorological notion of Winter is subjective: For MENA residents, winter is a whopping 25 degrees celsius in the Gulf, but can reach single-digit lows in Lebanon’s snow-covered mountains. For subtropical Sochians - as for their Mideast counterparts - sand, not snow, is a much more familiar site along with palm trees & beach resorts.
Image 1 of 8: For both camps, the idea of the “Olympics,” (much less Winter) is still a novel concept: This is the first time Russia will host the Winter games, having hosted the 1980 Summer games during the Soviet Union era. From the Middle East side, only Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco Turkey, Iran and Israel have been known to send athletes in the past.
Image 1 of 8: The Circassian Connection: Sochi is the epicenter of the Caucus's longest war that took place between the Circassian people and the Russian Empire from 1763-1864. The conflict displaced many, and forced migration into areas in the Middle East such as present-day Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Turkey where large Circassian communities are found today.
Image 1 of 8: Anything can be settled over a nice cup of tea: Like MENA, Sochi is known for its brewing skills! As the hub of Russia’s tea industry, Sochi’s Krasnodarsky tea brand has placed the Russian city at the heart of its population’s tea-sipping culture. MENA folks can totally relate, with tea often a staple to any visit, meeting or shared meal.
Image 1 of 8: Limited love for LGBT: Putin and his Sochian kin show no love—like MENA counterparts—for LGBT communities. Twitter mobs are railing; over 52 Olympians called on the Kremlin to retract its discriminatory policies, and gay US ex-Olympic figure skater NBC commentator Johnny Weir has adopted women’s outfits in comic protest against homophobia.
Image 1 of 8: The “Terrorist” Threat: An all too-familiar story for MENA, and for Sochians is the threat of a 'terrorist' attack. With the media hyping up an imminent bomb attack by 'Muslims' and 'Arabs', perhaps this is why the MENA turnout, all sports skills aside, will be low in Sochi. They may miss their event waiting in hours-long airport checkpoints!!!
Image 1 of 8: Big spenders: Sochi and MENA seem to be OTT when it comes to hosting international sporting events. Originally projected to spill $12 billion, Russia is spending $51 billion, $7 billion more than Beijing’s 2008 Games. Sound familiar? Doha is forecast to spend $120 billion on the 2022 FIFA World Cup, much more than South Africa spent in 2010.
Image 1 of 8: Alas, the athlete connection: MENA will be (snow) banking on its small (but mighty!) team of 20 athletes representing Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Israel to make the region proud at Sochi. Morocco’s Adam Lamhamedi & Kenza Tazi as well as Lebanon’s Alex Mohbat & Jacky Chamoun will all compete in the Slalom--and Giant Slalom!--events.
It might not be the Jamaican bobsled team, but the idea of “Middle Eastern” competitors at the Winter Olympics is sure an athletic oddball, at least in the years when they show up at all! Only one MENA Olympic team appeared in the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, in the shape of Lebanon’s snow patrol starring Chirine Njeim and Niki Fürstauer.
It would be a no-brainer to blame the low MENA quota on the weather here - a dearth of cooler climes and snow-covered slopes in much of the Middle East.
Yet despite MENA’s limited winter training ground, 20 athletes from the region have come out of the woodwork to brave snow (and sand!), sleet (and sun!) and have managed to secure spots at this winter’s edition of the Olympic Games in...you guessed it! Russia’s BEACH resort hotspot: Sochi?! The Kremlin announced the seaside city of Sochi Krasnodar Krai of Russia (a favorite vacation destination for President Vladimir Putin) as its choice hosting venue back in 2007, hoping to pump up area tourism. All artificial snow (job) aside, the plan scored gold!!
But look closer -- in what seems like an ironic twist for MENA’s 2014 Olympic athletes - their journey to Sochi (the warmest-ever Winter Olympics host city) may land them closer to home than imagined. Beyond the balmy weather --MENA athletes--and you -- may be surprised to learn how much Sochians and MENA-nites actually share in terms of history, culture and politics.
So tuck into a camel-spin through these common foibles of Sochians and MENAnites - you may be a little snow or sand-shocked to see we’re not worlds apart!