Rusia:The Idiocy of Olympic Values

Read Time:4 Minute, 53 Second YORK – It should surprise no one that the preparations for the Winter Olympics
in Sochi, Russia, turned out to be wildly expensive and riddled with corruption. But
the scale of excess is nonetheless staggering. The cost of building ski slopes, ice
rinks, roads, halls, and stadiums for winter sports in a subtropical Black Sea
resort has been well over $50 billion. Critics say that half of this was either
stolen or paid as kickbacks to President Vladimir Putin’s cronies, who just happened
to win the biggest contracts.

One critic, a Russian businessman named Valery Morozov, claims that officials in
Putin’s own office demanded payoffs for contracts. After being told that he would
“be drowned in blood,” Morozov fled the country.

But what did anyone expect in a country where big business, organized crime, and
politics so often coincide? And, the grand scale aside, Russia is hardly the only
country where Olympic sports, Formula One racing (also to take place later this year
in Sochi), or World Cup soccer is a boon for larceny and graft.

Then there is the matter of a host country’s unconscionable laws, which can make an
international sporting contest appear unseemly. Nazi Germany’s race laws were firmly
in place when the 1936 Berlin Olympics were held, as were curbs on free speech in
China in 2008. Russia, for its part, has adopted a ban on “homosexual propaganda” –
a Putin-sponsored law that is both ludicrous and so loose that it could be used to
arrest anyone deemed to be inconvenient to the authorities.

Putin, missing the point of his critics’ objections entirely, has reassured the
world that gay athletes and visitors to the Winter Games will be absolutely safe, as
long as they “leave the children alone.” The assumption here is that homosexuals are
pedophiles at heart; to be safe in Sochi, they need only to control themselves until
they return home to their decadent countries. Russia, meanwhile, will uphold decent
traditional values. As the mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, informed the BBC, “we
do not have [homosexuals] in our city.”

This kind of bigotry, designed to mobilize the most ignorant sections of Russian
society behind the president by pandering to their prejudices, should elicit more
protest than it has. More than 50 international Olympic athletes have already
publicly voiced their opposition to the law. It would be good if more athletes spoke
out, despite efforts by the Russian organizers to ban political statements.

But the root of the problems in Sochi lies much deeper than the corrupt practices of
Putin’s friends or the hatefulness of his law on homosexual propaganda. Over and
over, whether it is in Brazil or Qatar preparing for the soccer World Cup, or the
Olympic Games held in oppressive and authoritarian societies, the same contradiction
becomes apparent.

Even as FIFA, the world football association, or the International Olympic Committee
insist that they are above politics, their grand events are politically exploited by
all kinds of regimes, some of them less than savory. As a result, sport becomes
political. And the more FIFA and the IOC protest their political innocence, the
better it is for regimes that use international sporting events for their own ends.

That contradiction goes back to the beginning of the modern Olympic movement. Baron
Pierre de Coubertin, shocked by France’s defeat in a disastrous war with Prussia in
1871, initially aimed to restore French males’ virility by encouraging organized
games. Then he became more ambitious and expanded his vision to include other

In a world so often torn apart by military strife, Coubertin believed that peace and
international brotherhood could be achieved by reviving the ancient Greek Olympic
Games. He insisted from the beginning that his games would be above politics,
because politics is divisive, whereas the purpose of the games would be to bring
people together.

Not everyone was pleased with this idea. Charles Maurras, leader of the deeply
reactionary Action Française, saw Coubertin’s Olympics as a liberal Anglo-Saxon plot
to undermine racial vigor and native pride. But he soon changed his mind after
attending the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and saw that international sports
created a fine opportunity for aggressive chauvinism, of which he much approved.

Yet Coubertin persisted in his dream of apolitical brotherhood. Karl Marx once
described being apolitical as a form of idiocy. In ancient Greece, idiōtēs were
people who were concerned only with private affairs and spurned all political life.
Coubertin made his idiocy public.

And so it was that at the age of 73, a year before his death, the ailing Coubertin
still managed to record a speech, broadcast in the stadium at the 1936 Berlin
Olympics, about the ideals of fairness and brotherhood. Meanwhile, Hitler and his
henchman were exploiting the games to raise the prestige of the Nazi Reich.

Then, too, athletes were discouraged from voicing their opinions. Protests against
Nazi racism were stifled with stern Olympic lectures about the apolitical nature of
sports. A few compromises were made. Signs barring Jews from public places were
discreetly removed for the duration of the games. And some Jewish athletes were
discreetly dropped from national teams.

Nothing has changed since then. Today, the IOC still wraps itself in the lofty
mantle of apolitical Olympic idiocy, while Putin uses the Winter Games to try to add
luster to his increasingly autocratic, and failing, Russian state. No doubt, the
Games will provide much excitement to viewers around the world. But let us spare a
thought for the homosexuals and other vulnerable citizens who will have to live
under Putin’s venal and increasingly despotic rule once the party has moved on.

Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard
College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

Project Syndicate

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