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Covering the Sochi Olympics under a cloud of global doubt

As the world turns its attention to Sochi for the start of the Olympics on Friday, efforts to turn the subtropical resort city into an Olympic venue hit deadline. This is what it all looks like.
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A general view of Rosa Khutor Mountain village cluster is seen prior to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on February 3, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

SOCHI, Russia — “What do you think of Russia?” Dmitry Avtonomov asked me.

He is a young Russian man visiting Sochi from Cheboksary, a city on Russia's Volga River, and he wanted a comparison with the US.

I searched for words. “Well, it’s less fancy.”

“You mean, normal?” he asked.

Sochi isn’t a glistening city. Rows of single-story houses, some with metal roofs, retreat from the sea; protruding yellow utility pipes connect many buildings, occasionally over roads; there are high-rise hotels closer to the coast, along with dilapidated older buildings. Smooth black stones cover the beach.

There was talk around the 2012 London Olympics about the unprecedented security, questions about whether or not the facilities would be ready in time, how the performance would play out, and if the country would really benefit. The same has happened here in Russia, but there is more security, more money and more negative attention in the press.

This is what initially drew me to Sochi and made me want to witness the coastal resort's changing landscape and, of course, these Olympic Games — to be present as a correspondent for GlobalPost covering the human rights issues, geopolitics and security machine that accompany the Games in this setting.

Russia’s $50 billion investment for the Winter Olympic Games is most visible in the city’s new infrastructure: a railroad the length of Sochi’s coast connecting to Sochi International Airport, and a new highway linking the coast to Krasnaya Polyana and surrounding ski resorts, where the downhill events for the Olympics will be held.

Russia’s massive security effort for the Games is also most evident in the city’s public spaces.


Announcing our finalists for the GroundTruth reporting fellowship on rising youth unemployment

GlobalPost and The GroundTruth Project have selected 40 finalists for a fellowship that will send young journalists to 10 countries to report on global youth unemployment.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — We received more than 400 applications for the GroundTruth Reporting Fellowship on Rising Youth Unemployment, full of great ideas. Applicants from 77 countries proposed stories in 90 countries across six continents.


GlobalPost and The GroundTruth Project announce VOICES, offering ideas and opinions from underrepresented communities

On Martin Luther King Day, we launch a new initiative with support from the Ford Foundation.
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — GlobalPost and its foundation-supported initiative today announce an expansion of GlobalPost’s Commentary section with the launch of a new series of commentaries, analysis and multimedia profiles titled VOICES.

The series seeks to bring new voices into a global dialogue on important social justice issues through a small team of regular contributors and through outreach to writers and thought leaders in the developing world who will share important points of view, innovative ideas and proposed solutions that need to be considered.


The early life of North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un, as told by his family's sushi chef

Kenji Fujimoto was a close companion to Kim Jong Un for a decade, refereeing basketball games as well as preparing meals for the family.
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"Kenji Fujimoto" being interviewed by Kosuke Takahashi, of NK News, on January 8, 2014, in Tokyo, Japan. (R. Kato, NK News/Courtesy)

Editor's note: This guest post to GroundTruth was provided by NK News, a Washington, DC-based independent news site focused on North Korea. We thought it offered a tiny glimpse into one of the opaque regimes in the world. A version of this post was originally published here.

TOKYO — The blossoming friendship between Kim Jong Un—supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—and retired American basketball superstar Dennis Rodman doesn’t seem so unlikely to Jong Un’s longtime friend and sushi chef for his father, Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym, of course).

In fact, Fujimoto said in a recent exclusive interview with NK News, Kim is a natural-born ruler, and the first signs of his high-quality leadership potential were manifest on the basketball court at a very early age.

Kenji Fujimoto served as chef to the former North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Il—Kim Jong Un’s father—as well as a close companion to the junior Kim for more than 10 years, until leaving North Korea in 2001.

In his time with Jong Il’s three children Fujimoto was required to play two roles: the chef, who was on sushi duty, and the playmate, who wrote birthday cards—a task Fujimoto said makes him sure that Kim Jong Un’s birthday is January 8, 1983, and not the 1982 date noted by Pyongyang or the 1984 date noted by South Korean intelligence—and refereed basketball games for Kim Jong Un and his older brother, Jong Chol.

The young Kims played basketball from their early childhood—a hobby that was highlighted in yesterday’s FRONTLINE special on the secretive republic—because their father, the famously diminutive Dear Leader, hoped this would cause them to grow taller.

Fujimoto played an instrumental role here, bringing a basketball rulebook from Japan and frequently refereeing games for the Kim boys.

Jong Un in particular frequently wore a pair of basketball jerseys; one of which bore the number made famous by Michael Jordan in his playing days.

The other? The number worn by Dennis Rodman.


Up for reelection, US representatives remember less wealthy constituents

New ‘inequality’ calculus has GOP concerned about cutting jobless benefits.
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People looking for work stand in line to apply for a job during a job fair at the Miami Dolphins Sun Life stadium on May 2, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Election years have a way of focusing the mind, particularly in Washington.


Resolving to keep the focus on rising income inequality in 2014

GlobalPost Special Reports offers a complimentary ebook titled "The Great Divide: Global Income Inequality and Its Cost."
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BOSTON – The issue of rising income inequality pushed its way into the American consciousness in 2013 in a way it never has before.

A consensus has formed around the idea that income inequality is the single most important challenge facing the world, a conviction shared most notably and passionately by two leaders with two very different world views:

President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.


2013: The year income inequality went mainstream

After decades of sitting on the back burner, the data — and the pain — became too much to ignore.
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A man smokes a cigarette outside a restaurant in Hong Kong on September 28, 2013. The same day, Hong Kong announced its first benchmark to measure poverty and found almost 20 percent of residents live in such conditions, a move hailed as a step towards tackling worsening inequality (Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Viewed from the towering heights of America’s financial capital, there are reasons aplenty to celebrate the coming new year.

The official unemployment rate — which peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 — fell to 7 percent by the start of December, a level that prompted President Obama to claim the US economy is “ready for lift off” in 2014.

Perhaps, but Spaceship USA seems intent on leaving an awful lot of people behind on the launch pad.


Overseas Press Club pens open letter to Egypt's el-Sisi after 'deplorable' detention of journalists

Four Al Jazeera journalists have been arrested in Cairo, accused of spreading "false news" that "damaged national security."
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General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attends the funeral of Giza security chief Nabil Farrag in the district of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on September 20, 2013. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)

There is more disturbing news today about the continuing crackdown on journalists in Egypt. If the cornerstone of a democracy is indeed a free press, then there is reason for those of us who care about democracy to be concerned. And there is reason for all of us who care about fairness and accuracy in reporting to be concerned.


Deep-sea mining could make 'largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet'

Honolulu, Hawaii is emerging as a hub for a race to extract billions of dollars worth of minerals from the ocean floor.
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The Clipperton Fracture Zone is the nearly horizontal line No. 15 below the Clarion Fracture Zone (14), and the Middle America Trench is the deep-blue line No. 9. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Courtesy)

Modern technologies like cell phones, laptops, wind turbines and hybrid vehicles all require rare minerals, often difficult and expensive to extract from the earth.


Why Madagascar's children have the most at stake in Friday's presidential election

Madagascar’s children have borne the highest costs of the nation's social and economic turmoil since the 2009 coup d'etat. And it will be up to the new president to refocus government priorities.
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Children carry bricks on December 19, 2013 in Antananarivo, ahead of the upcoming presidential election. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — As the east African island nation of Madagascar picks a president on Friday, five years after a coup d’état sent the country spiraling into crisis, the political dynamics will be closely scrutinized. Will there be post-election violence? How will the impasse between the toppled former president Marc Ravalomanana and his successor, Andry Rajoelina, resolve itself? Will the government shed its pariah status among the international community?

But those with the most at stake will play no role in the political intrigue. Amid unprecedented social and economic turmoil since the 2009 coup, Madagascar’s children have borne the highest costs.

“It’s what you would see in countries like DRC,” says Steve Lauwerier, the UNICEF country director. Except, he adds, “We didn’t have a war. There was no big economic crisis. There was no reason that this should happen.”

What has happened is a peacetime humanitarian collapse of startling proportions. While other African nations have progressed rapidly in health and education, Madagascar has stagnated or regressed. Half of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnourishment, or “stunting,” the fourth-highest rate in the world. At least 1.5 million children do not attend school — which the world bank estimates could be an increase of 600,000 since 2009.