SOCHI, Russia- The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were momentous and infamous in many respects. The modern torch relay and live television coverage debuted at the games. Nazi officials initially forbid any Jewish or Black participants, but conceded the point after international backlash. However, Jewish Germans were prevented from competing (except for a single token fencer, Helene Mayer) and the Romani population of Berlin was placed in a concentration camp for the duration of the games in an effort to ‘clean up’ the city. A few boycotts occurred, primarily by Spain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as well as by individual athletes.
In the midst of the controversy, Nazi propaganda regarding ‘Aryan superiority, and United States segregation laws, Jesse Owens won four gold medals. On December 8, one of those gold medals sold for over $1.4 million on SCP Auction, the highest amount of money paid for any Olympic memorabilia to-date. Though it’s unknown which race the medal corresponds to, it was confirmed to have been given by Owens to his good friend Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
The news came as excitement grows for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia in February. Russian winters are notoriously frigid. Average January temperatures in Moscow hover around 20 degrees Fahrenheit, while in Perm the average drops to 15 degrees, and in Irkutsk it tends to stay near 10 degrees. Such freezing temperatures may be good news when discussing skiing or skating, but they have devastating effects on those living in poverty. The amount paid for Owens’ medal could have impacted the next Olympics’ host countries’ impoverished individuals.
Though Russia is often cited for its billionaires, now numbering just under 100, the immense nation also houses striking inequality. Russia’s declared poverty line is much lower than many other nations, a quirk that lessens the official number of people living in poverty. However, the discrepancy is easily seen when the poverty line is juxtaposed to the estimated real cost of living per month: 4,661 roubles ($142) versus 6,200 roubles ($189).
Keeping this in mind, the Russian Federal State Statistics Service states 5.9 percent of the population in 2012 earned less than 5,000 roubles ($152) per month. Based on a population estimate of 143,600,000, the number of people living on less than 5,000 roubles per month is just under 8.5 million. Other estimates put the number at 18 million when all people living on less than the real cost of living are taken into account.
Of the impoverished population, somewhere between 1-5 million are homeless children. Official statistics state that in 2011 fewer than 3,000 families were registered as needing housing, yet another office declared that in 2010 about 600,000 children were homeless. Regardless of the various discrepancies, it is clear there are at least thousands of homeless children and families. With the deepening winter, heating costs rise for those with residences and the danger of freezing rises for those without homes or those with burst pipes. By the end of 2012, almost 50 people had been killed by freezing temperatures alone and hundreds more hospitalized.
Based on Moscow, average monthly energy costs for an apartment are 1,000 roubles ($30.) Jesse Owens’ medal could easily pay for 48,885 apartments to be heated for one month or 12,221 apartments to be heated for the entire winter (4 months.) Furthermore, the $1,466,574 spent on the medal would buy over 733,000 homeless individuals a loaf of bread and a liter of milk, often more than their average meal.
After his Olympic success Owens became known for his financial focus and financial woes. He famously told Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith, “The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.” It is safe to assume Owens understood the power that comes with money and the importance it plays in staying alive. It is also safe to assume that the over 8 million homeless people living in Russia’s cold also understand the power and importance of money.
– Katey Baker-Smith