8 Better Ways Russia Could Have Spent Its Olympic Billions

ADLER, RUSSIA - JANUARY 08: The Olympic Rings stand outside of Sochi International Airport on January 8, 2014 in Alder, Russia. The region will host the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics which start on February 6th, 2014. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
ADLER, RUSSIA - JANUARY 08: The Olympic Rings stand outside of Sochi International Airport on January 8, 2014 in Alder, Russia. The region will host the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics which start on February 6th, 2014. (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)

For the record, we have nothing against the Olympics. It is a noble, ancient tradition, full of camaraderie, sportsmanship and healthy competition. (At least in theory.)

One of the downsides of this "healthy competition," though, is the increasingly exorbitant price tag host countries pay to put on the games -- relying on private donors and taxpayers to foot the bill.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are no exception. In fact Russia may take the medal for the most expensive Olympic games ever, beating out China, which spent a whopping $40 billion on the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Just how much Russia has spent is the subject of fierce debate. On the high end, two of Russian President Vladimir Putin's harshest critics have estimated the Sochi price tag at $51 billion and $45.8 billion, respectively, accusing government officials and various contractors of having embezzled billions. Putin, however, offered a much lower number in a recent interview, arguing that the government has only spent $6.4 billion so far.

The $51 billion number stems from a 2013 report by politician Boris Nemtsov and journalist Leonid Martynyuk, in which they estimate that more than $25 to $35 billion has been lost to corruption.

The $45.8 billion figure was compiled by opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption and published in a January 2014 report. The organization's report also argued that on a minimum of 10 projects related to the Olympics, the cost has been inflated at least 1.5 to 2.5 times, and that the majority of "private" investors in the games have ties to the federal government.

Echoing Putin's estimate, the official Sochi Olympics Committee told The Huffington Post that the construction and engineering costs for the Olympic venues amounted to $6 billion, with an added $2 billion for organizing costs.

Putin and other government officials have argued that the opposition reports are misleading because some of the costs they factor in can be attributed to infrastructure investments that would have been made either way. An $8.6 billion highway is one example, about which Nemtsov commented, "You could have paved this road with 5 million tons of gold or caviar and the price would have been the same."

Either way, these infrastructure investments don't seem to be trickling down to the people actually living in Sochi and surrounding areas, which brings up a billion-dollar question:

If Russian officials and investors truly had $50 billion sitting in the bank, are the Olympics really the best way to have spent it? Here's our humble suggestion of eight better ways Russia could have handed out the money and done some good for the world:

Help Eradicate Polio Once And For All
AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Russia could vaccinate at least 92 billion children worldwide. According to UNICEF Senior Officer of Media Relations Marci Greenberg, a single oral polio vaccine (OPV) dose costs $0.18 to administer. The World Health Organization says at least three doses need to be administered in order for a person to be fully protected. That's about $0.50 per child, and close to 100 billion children protected with a $50 billion budget.
Improve Sanitation For Millions Of People
AP Photo/Felipe Dana

World leaders agreed in the Millennium Development Goals to aim for 75 percent of the global population to have access to improved sanitation facilities by 2015. The World Health Organization estimates that this is going to cost $14 billion every year until then. Russia could fund the entire project, and use the billions left over to provide sanitation to the remaining 25 percent of the population.
Protect The Most Endangered Animals
AP Photo/Frank Rumpenhorst

Last year, an international team of researchers came together to calculate how expensive it would be to make every endangered species in the world at low risk of extinction. Not surprisingly, the amount was staggering. The researchers concluded it would cost close to $80 billion a year to fund all global conservation sites. But for a more modest $3.9 billion, certain interventions could be made to protect at the least the most endangered species on the list. Thus Russia could fund over 12 years of conservation projects to protect the most at-risk species.
Ease Some Of The Pain Of Syria's Civilians
AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

Syria's ongoing civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, forced over 2 million to seek refuge in other countries and displaced more than 4 million within the nation. The United Nations has appealed for $6.5 billion to fund Syria aid operations in 2014. Russia could fund the U.N.'s entire aid mission this year, next year and for many years to come.
Feed 280 Million Children
AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

According to the World Food Programme, one in six children in developing countries is underweight. Malnutrition and undernourishment contribute to 45 percent of deaths in children under 5 years old, worldwide. Feed the Children estimates it costs $180 to provide one meal to one child every day for a year. At $50 billion, Russia could provide nearly 280 million children with meals every day for a year.
Fund Education Around The Globe
Emilie Iob/AFP/Getty Images

As part of a recent study on the social status of teachers around the world, the Varkey Gems Foundation put together a chart of teachers' salaries in countries around the world. Based on that chart, the worldwide average salary of a teacher is about $38,125 per year. With $50 billion, Russia could pay more than a million educators around the globe.
Give The World Some Air To Breathe
AP Photo/Felipe Dana
Extreme weather conditions and natural disasters in the past year have highlighted the devastating toll of climate change. A single tree can trap nearly 50 pounds of carbon per year and can provide two people with oxygen support for their lifetimes. Taking into consideration the cost of mulch, fertilizer and one sapling, in total roughly $25, Russia could plant 2 billion trees. That's nearly 100 billion pounds of carbon trapped every year.
Put Kids Through College
Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Students in the United States take on a whopping $30,000 in debt, on average, to pay for college. Even in countries where college is free or much less expensive, students often still accumulate debt through living expenses. Unlike loans, which many universities offer through financial aid departments, scholarships are free and significantly reduce the amount a student has to pay back after graduation. Anyone can start a scholarship fund, and the sky's the limit. For example, Russia could start a $10,000 scholarship and award 10,000 students every year ... for 500 years. Now that's a way to make a lasting difference.

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