One of the first essay’s I wrote at school was rather bravely entitled “What is the relationship between politics and the Olympic Games?”
At the tender age of 16 I considered it something of a masterpiece: 2,000 words on subjects as diverse as “Hitler’s Olympics” at Berlin 1936, the boycotted Games of the Cold War era, and the human rights issues engulfing the most recent extravaganza in Beijing.
I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I had barely rippled the surface of a subject worthy of several PhD theses. Not to mention, of course, the livelihood of journalists at insidethegames.
But I was reminded of this embryonic attempt at understanding the Olympic Movement after a week in which all the political forces at play ahead of Sochi 2014 have been demonstrated – both by Russia and the rest of the world.
When Thomas Bach was elected President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in September the first congratulatory call he received, via the phone of Sochi 2014 chief Dmitry Chernyshenko, was from a man in Moscow called Mr Putin.
This goes some way to revealing the significance with which Russia’s President regards the Olympics, as well as the 2018 FIFA World Cup and other events in his “decade of sport”. The 61-year-old judo black belt could remain in power for another ten years, but sporting triumphalism has been picked as the means by which he can best demonstrate to the world that he has made his country great again.
This has been seen in lavish spending reportedly totalling around 1,620 billion roubles ($50 billion/£31billion/€36.5 billion) in creating an Olympics essentially from scratch in Sochi, along with the most ambitious ever Torch Relay, taking in the North Pole and Outer Space.
But, as I argued in my essay six years ago, hosting the Olympics can be a doubled-edged sword because the international spotlight can expose negative, as well as positive, elements.
Quite apart from the questionable nature of an economic system in which the most lucrative construction contracts have allegedly been awarded to Putin’s closest personal allies, it is attitudes towards gay rights which have been most exposed.
The law introduced into the Duma – the Lower House of Russia’s Parliament – in June outlawed the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”. In practical terms it essentially prevented a parent, teacher or anyone else from telling a child that being gay is acceptable.
This is by no means the most extreme anti-gay rights law existing worldwide – I was shocked to discover last week 40 out of 53 Commonwealth member nations have some sort of restrictive law – but the Olympic spotlight has illuminated the Russian case more than any other.
To a certain extent we must accept that countries are entitled to their own national laws and have different cultures and attitudes than us in the liberal West. Yet if you want international respect, as Putin so clearly does, you must take notice of international norms.
Despite the best attempts of some public figures, no country seriously considered a fully fledged boycott in protest against these laws. As Latvia’s President Andris Berzins said last week, “Boycotts are a relic of the Cold War” and it is better to protest by attending rather than staying away.
The establishment of official protest zones which athletes and accredited officials are free to attend – for the first time ever after a change to Rule 50 of the IOC Charter – is a further endorsement of this view.
But this has not stopped international leaders invoking their own personal boycotts through a blend of devious and not-so-subtle means.
First there was German President Joachim Gauck, who will stay away but refused to admit this was for reasons of protest. Then there was Francois Hollande and the rest of the French Government, who offered no explanation for their non-attendance.
As Belgian, Canadian, Georgian, Lithuanian and Moldovan leaders announced similar intentions, the torrent soon became a flood. Other countries have adopted a compromise position. With typical subterfuge the news that Britain’s Helen Grant – who along with sport and tourism counts “equality” among her three Ministerial titles – will attend can be taken as an implicit acknowledgement that Prime Minister David Cameron will not.
Trust the United States to break any trend of subtlety. Not only will neither Barrack nor Michelle Obama nor vice-president Joe Biden attend, but the delegation will headed by two openly gay figures in former tennis player Billie Jean King and ice-hockey star Caitlin Cahow. Make that three openly gay figures, after figure skater Brian Boitano came out after being unveiled in the line-up.
Putin’s response, with all the pragmatic magnanimity that he could muster, was to grant an amnesty to release a number of political prisoners, including two members of dissenting punk band Pussy Riot and 30 Greenpeace activists arrested for “hooliganism” after disrupting an Arctic oil drilling program. Most notably the ex-oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky will also be pardoned after ten years behind bars.
Formerly Russia’s richest man, Khodorkovskiy had the cheek to finance opposition groups and his arrest was therefore regarded as politically-motivated rather than for the “embezzlement, tax evasion and fraud” he supposedly committed.
With most of his wealth disappeared he is no longer considered a threat and, like the others to be released, it is a largely symbolic gesture with little concrete meaning. But considering international criticism over the Olympics has forced Putin to take action that he has resisted for a decade, it is quite some symbolic gesture.
For the Olympics are part of Putin’s wider aim to highlight the international strength of Russia as well as himself.
The last year has been a largely successful one for Russian diplomacy. The decree banning chemical weapons in Syria, for example, was agreed only with Russian mediation to emphasize its key role in negotiating any global agreement. But on the other hand the growing instability on its Western border challenges this notion of strength.
In response to suggestions that Ukraine would sign an “Association Agreement” with the European Union Putin supposedly forced through an alternative deal, in Sochi of all places, to bring the ex-Soviet country back into the Russian fold. This has led to popular protests on the streets of Kiev and the discontent is likely to rumble on for some time – with Lviv’s 2022 Olympic bid deeming it another issue registering on the sporting radar.
The economic sanctions imposed by Russia on Lithuania after the latter used its Presidency of the Council of the European Union – which rotates among members on a six month basis – to seek greater relations with Ukraine, underlines the awareness of this threat. And what was Lithuania’s response to the sanctions? An Olympic boycott of course – after President Dalia Grybauskaitė confirmed she does “not see a political possibility of going to the Sochi Games”.
So wider political relations, as well as human rights, are at stake ahead of Sochi 2014.
There is the possibility of all this being forgotten once the Games get underway. The protest zones will inevitably be placed well out of sight away from the action and a parallel can be drawn with Beijing where the success of the Games hid the political issues which clouded the build-up.
This is not guaranteed however.
Furthermore and without wishing in any way to tempt fate, the greatest political danger potentially comes not internationally but from dissidents within Russia. A released Canadian intelligence report last week highlighted the danger of Doku Umarov, a Chechnya-based warlord allegedly responsible for bombings on the Moscow metro and Domodedovo airport bombings in 2010 and 2011, who has called for attacks on the “Satanic Games” in Sochi. There is a real threat of a terrorist attack if not in Sochi then somewhere else in Russia during next year’s event, and this risk is in danger of being lost amid the other issues.
This is a sombre note on which to end, but as Munich 1972 and Atlanta 1996 tragically highlighted, terrorism has impacted Olympic history as much as human rights and boycotts have.
There is indeed no form of politics which is impervious to influencing an Olympic Games and this is something my 16-year old self identified and has been something confirmed to me throughout my short time at insidethegames.
After this week it is something that Vladimir Putin will no doubt have realized as well.
Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.
Insidethegames is an online blog of the London Organizing Committee that staged the 2012 London Games. The blog continues to cover issues that are important to the Olympic Movement. This article is reprinted here with permission of the blog editors.