Olympics

Sochi: Can We Hate the Laws Yet Love the Games?

Olympic rings against rainbow flag with caption "Sochi 2014."Going into the second week of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the controversy over Russia’s draconian laws against gay “propaganda” has all but faded into the background. Where some were calling for a full-out boycott, others insisted that a boycott would only hurt the athletes.

No boycott, no protests. This article says,

The silence is deafening. On Russia’s anti-gay law, on corruption, and on environmental violations in the run up to the Games, there has not been a single protest.

As the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its national associations have made it clear to competitors that they should not use the Games as a place to make “political points”, the Russian authorities have used a combination of carrot and stick to ensure that homegrown critics also stay quiet.

The athletes, having been duly warned, have opted to keep their political views to themselves:

…the focus remains firmly on sport despite an attempt by gay rights groups to sign athletes up to condemn Russia’s law against ‘homosexual propaganda’.The law, much discussed in the runup to the Games, has not been raised even in a roundabout way by athletes. When the openly gay Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst won a medal early on in the Games, she made no protest and even admitted to having a “cuddle” with Vladimir Putin.

The Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, who had previously said she planned to speak out strongly against the law, was decidedly circumspect on Sunday after she finished her event, saying she did not think the Games were the right place to vent her frustration. She said she had received hate mail on Twitter for her opposition to the law but also hinted she might have rethought her stance.

“I’ve had hate tweets. But it’s good getting different sides of the story, and trying to open your eyes a lot more before you say anything,” she said.

Austrian Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, who married her partner Isabel Stolz last year, refused to be drawn on the anti-gay law after she won a silver medal in ski jumping last week.

“I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future and we should give them time,” she said.

Members of a small but vocal group of environmental protesters, “who for several years have suffered police pressure, threats and home searches as they attempted to bring environmental violations and injustices committed against Sochi residents during the Olympic construction spree to light,” have been under close scrutiny. One of them, Evgeny Vitishko, was jailed for three years last Wednesday.

But we don’t hear about this when we’re watching the Olympics on television. Canada’s coverage is all about the games, the athletes, and little politically neutral snippets about Russian history and culture.

The issue of sport and politics comes up in other ways as well. As I make plans for my summer triathlons, especially the Olympic distance that is my “fittest by fifty” goal, I can’t help but feel a bit hesitant about one of the major series in Ontario–the Milk series. I’m an ethical vegan with all sorts of moral qualms about the dairy industry. So the Milk series just doesn’t sit right with me.

I can’t say it’s an utter deal breaker–if there were no other viable options, I would probably do the Olympic distance in one of the Milk races. But I’ve found an alternative and I’m happy that I did.

How much do we pay attention to who is sponsoring the races we sign up for, or which charities the races are supporting? And yet it does matter. When an event is a success, the sponsors get lots of good press, the charities raise lots of money. And it’s only successful if people show up.

In the case of the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee does its best to remain politically neutral and encourages the athletes to do the same. They’ve explicitly distanced themselves from the Vitishko case, insisting that it has nothing to do with the games.

The group of which Vitishko is a part thinks otherwise:

In an angry response to the IOC, the environmental activists released a statement saying that “everything that has happened … prior and during the Olympic Games has to do with the Olympic Games.”

The statement says the group’s activists have been “harassed, questioned, detained, and spent days in dingy cells” because of the Games, and had their office and property attacked.

I’m not sure I would call for an all out boycott, but I think that the IOC is unrealistic in trying to promote the idea that the Olympics are only about sport. They’re a significant international event that brings world attention and an economic boon to the host country and region.

Not only that, it’s completely inappropriate for the IOC to silence athletes from voicing their political views during the Games.

We may like to think that sport and politics don’t mix. But the reality is that they do. And when they do, athletes, participant nations, host countries, sponsors, and the community of spectators who support these events need to think about what they’re supporting.

2 thoughts on “Sochi: Can We Hate the Laws Yet Love the Games?

  1. I’m admittedly torn about all of these things. I despise Rob Ford’s campaign to remove the rainbow flag from flying at City Hall during the games and I agree that silencing people from speaking up is not right, of course. But then I think of other events like the Academy Awards where I really don’t want every acceptance speech to be political. I really just don’t know exactly where the lines should be drawn.

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    1. Good point about the academy awards. But I’m not saying the Olympics are just a forum for politics. I’m saying that they’re inherently political in lots of ways (that the oscars aren’t) but you’ve raise a good point. I’ll need to think more about what sorts of things differentiate them. Thanks.

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