The pageantry for the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics was an impressive sight. Fireworks lit the skyline of the sub-tropical Russian town of Sochi and inaugurated an event which is supposed to symbolize the unity and inherent dignity of the human race. Across cultures and ethnicities, the Olympics is supposed to glorify the common athletic struggle in all of humanity. It’s a beautiful idea that was superficially continued last week. The last time the Olympics were held on Russia soil, America boycotted them in response to the belligerent actions of the Soviet state in its invasion of Afghanistan. Thirty years later, and now we are the ones with a security commitment in central Asia. While much has changed in our relations with Moscow, disappointingly there is a lot that has remained the same too. The Russian state is still abusing the rights of its citizens and acting in an aggressive manner abroad. Constantly undercutting American policy and supporting our opponents when the mood strikes them, Russia is no ally of this country. While Putin is no Stalin, the former KGB agent has helped move relations between the two countries down an uncertain path. It’s certainly too late to discuss boycotting the games when they are almost over, but perhaps that would have been the right response to Russian behavior during the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s government has taken discriminatory steps against members of its own populace that betray the noble ideas enshrined in the Olympic spirit. Russia has moved towards criminalizing homosexuality and has started to demonize different ethnic groups. Over the last summer, Putin enacted an adoption ban on Russian-born children to gay couples in addition to permitting police officers to detain foreigners they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or “pro-gay.” The absurdity of holding an international event dedicated to tolerance and open-minded exchange in the heart of a dark and intolerant space is profound.
In addition to its medieval stance on gay rights, the Russian government took the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to broadcast its support for the murderous dictator still in charge of Syria. During the festivities, a reporter named Anatasia Popova was given the honor of walking the Olympic flag into the stadium along with other Russian notables. Popova is well known within the Russian media establishment for her support of the Assad regime and her ostrich-like ability to ignore the growing turmoil within Syria. Upon her arrival in the country, amid the first government assaults on Homs and Hama, she remarked, “Despite all our attempts, we didn’t manage to find the thousands-strong demonstrations against the government.” Her presence on the stadium floor was a piece of political symbolism that represented Russia’s continued intransience in finding a peaceful solution to the Syria question. Assad, a Russian ally, has benefited greatly from the partnership and Putin’s ability to forestall any action by the United Nations Secruity Council. Such politicking shouldn’t be part of the Olympic message and is certainly not a message that America can support.
It’s inevitable that politics should make their way into the Olympics on some level. The jockeying between states is a byproduct of national competition and pride. Sochi provides a healthy outlet for exercising these forces of nationalism, and that’s a good thing. It’s vastly preferable to watch states fight over places on the podium rather than air identification zones or trade routes. Yet when states behave in a manner unbecoming of the Olympic spirit, remedial actions should be taken to remind the world community that something is amiss. Russia’s mistreatment of its own population and support for murderous dictators abroad is wrong and not something the United States should be a party to.
This is not the first time that a state with totalitarian tendencies has hosted the Olympics, and it will probably not be the last. How should we as a country approach these situations in the future, and what actions are appropriate? The Obama administration has taken a sensible middle ground between boycotting and outright acquiescence in response to this problem. The president has declined the invitation to legitimize the event by taking part in its proceedings. Instead, the American delegation will consist of a group of outspoken LGBT activists. It’s a smart move and signals displeasure in the right way, but somehow it feels like a stronger display would have been more appropriate. Regardless of all the international intrigue, the young men and woman of Team USA deserve our full support even if the venue is less than desirable.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.