Sochi 2014: When Sport is Politics

The games are set to begin. Political, economic and social controversies are rife. There are Russia’s opposition to intervention in Syria, its anti-LGTB policies, radical Islam in the southern regions, Pussy Riot, amnesty for Khodorkovsky and the wavering of basic democratic freedoms. However despite it all the flame will be lit, flags will be waved and Mr. Putin will deliver a speech. Does this make Sochi the most politicized Olympics since 1936? Well, it depends.

The Politicization of Sochi

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 are reinforced. If anything goes wrong, his international image and domestic reputation as Mr. Order and Stability suffer. To lighten the mood he has freed Greenpeace activists, political prisoners, and non-serious criminals. Image is power. For Russia hosting the Olympic Games flawlessly is a symbol of rebirth and cause for respect. The 1980 Moscow Games were boycotted.

The leader looking at things #meme

(The leader looking at things #meme)

A complicating factor is that Sochi is jettisoned between Russia’s unstable Muslim provinces and Abkhazia, an unrecognized breakaway region of Georgia that is 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 that the games are to be the safest yet. A sovereign power reborn must guarantee monopoly on 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, 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.

Examples from the Past

Meanwhile, taking into consideration “Russia” factor, the level of politicization of Sochi may not be significantly different from other Games. Preceding the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, the Eiffel Tower, one of the wonders of the world, was used to protest Chinese oppression in Tibet, just as the Olympic flame was making its global roundabout through Paris. Six years later, the pro-Tibet protests have weakened. 2008 was another opportunity for protest and dissent. But once the spotlight faded, the utility of highlighting China’s controversies declined.

Tibet on the Eiffel

(Tibet on the Eiffel)

The Olympics have been an arena for political discourse and debate for sometime. There was Munich 1976, when a Palestinian terrorist group captured and killed the Israeli Olympic delegation. All the while the world was watching the German forces attempt a daring hostage rescue operation. There was the 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.

Olympics: Sport or Politics?

Of course, the Olympic Games are a sports event. Athletes demonstrate skill, strength, and spirit. They break records. Still the occasion of the Olympics renders a lot of political demonstration. 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.

Union Jack Uber Alles

(Union Jack Uber Alles)

The Olympic Games exist within the spectre of international relations and they play by the same rules of international politics. As such, 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 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 bring Westphalia back and strengthening individuals’ ties to nation states, mirroring the political divisions of our time.

This article does not 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. Instead, this article is about the confluence of sport and politics and its specific manifestation in the global dialogue leading up to the Sochi Winter Games.