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Sochi 2014: When Sport Is Politics

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are set to begin. Despite Russia’s opposition to intervention in Syria, homophobic policies, and Islamic radicalization in its southern regions, the flame will be lit, flags will be waved, and Mr. Putin will deliver a speech. There will be talk of social controversy. There will be economic controversy. Perhaps, there will even be talk of political controversy, anything from the recent amnesty for Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot to the wavering of basic democratic freedoms in Russia. Does this make Sochi the most politicized Olympics since 1936? 

It’s been a while since an Olympic event was as tied up with the political capital of one leader. Putin has invested a lot. If the Games are successful, his positions will be reinforced. If anything goes wrong, his international image and domestic reputation as”Mr. Order and Stability” will suffer. To lighten the mood, he has freed Greenpeace activists, political prisoners, and non-serious criminals. To the extent to which power is image, for Russia, hosting the Olympic Games flawlessly for the second time since the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games is a symbol of an affirmed rebirth of a respected nation.  However, there are several factors which have complicated the organization of the Games.

The most pressing of these is Russia’s tumultuous domestic situation.  Sochi is jettisoned between Russia’s unstable Muslim provinces and Abkhazia, an unrecognized breakaway region of Georgia that is being bolstered by Russia. The Games have already been labelled “satanic” by Chechen terrorist leader, Doku Umarov, who espouses Al-Qaeda’s vision of a global jihad. In response, there are Special Forces in the mountains, drones in the sky, and electronic surveillance. Dmitry Chernyshenko, CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee has promised the games to be the safest yet. A sovereign power reborn must guarantee monopoly over the use of force at home. If it cannot, what kind of a global power is it anyway?

Another hot topic is Russia’s discriminatory legislation on the subject of “homosexual propaganda” targeted at children which raised particular protest in the West. No officials from the White House will be attending, but the US delegation will be led by gay athletes. Similarly, no state officials from Canada, France or Lithuania would be present. Whereas, others, such as Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, are attending, explaining that a boycott signals that no dialogue is even desired.

From Russia’s perspective, this is a show of double standards. When the Soccer World Cup 2022 was given to Qatar, there was no controversy; even though Natox, Qatari anti-homosexuality mores are far more archaic. The only difference is that Qatar is friendly with the West, while Russia is a burly bear. Either way, Russians will have their celebrations with or without foreign dignitaries. Despite the furor of the 1980 Moscow boycott by the West, the Russians remember the celebrations and are not particularly bothered by those not attending.

Olympics: Sport or Politics? 

The Olympics have been an arena for politics for some time. There was Munich 1976, when a Palestinian terrorist group captured and killed the Israeli Olympic delegation while the world was watching the German forces attempt a daring hostage rescue operation. There was the aforementioned Moscow 1980 boycott by the West, and the Los Angeles 1984 revenge-boycott by the East. At the Atlanta 1996 Games, an individual planted bombs in reaction to the US government sanctioning abortion on demand.

Of course, the Olympic Games are a sports event. Athletes demonstrate skill, strength, and spirit in their quest to break records and push their limits.  Still, there is a lot of political demonstration, which often comes in the form of nationalism. Athletes represent states. The stadiums and competitors’ bodies are covered in national insignia. Countries spend years competing for the privilege of hosting and millions on prepping their athletes. There is a tally of medals, with the world’s powers always leading. Pure sportsmanship indeed.

The Olympic Games are a creature of international relations; competition is governed by much the same rules as international politics. The upcoming Winter Games in Sochi are a confirmation, rather than an exception, to the rule.

Founded in the late 19th century, the Olympic Movement was a product of the optimism and positivism. It was a time of accelerating progress, a time when liberal and non-liberal internationalist movements took root and gentlemen designed a universal Esperanto. Europe was anticipating global unity. A century later, the Olympic Games are strengthening individuals’ ties to nation states, mirroring the political divisions of our time.

No one may dispute that Sochi 2014 is controversial. Putin may have thought that he was appeasing the LGBT community by stating that “gays can feel safe and free in Sochi if they leave [Russian] children in peace”. But the assumptions underlying the statement come out wrong – whichever way you spin it.  The confluence of sport and politics is hardly new, and as the global dialogue leading up to Sochi has demonstrated, there’s more to the Winter Games than snow sports.

 -Daniel Stysis


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