U.S.-Russia Relations Can Change, Just Not Now
Published: February 13, 2014 (Issue # 1797)
My inclination in 2007 was, for both political and security reasons, to think it was a mistake for the International Olympic Committee to award the 2014 Winter Games to Russia. However, the political reasons were undermined by the earlier decision to award the 2008 Summer Games to China, which is a much more repressive country than Russia. The security concerns were still relevant, but they were not insurmountable. One can certainly argue that Sochi was not the best Russian city for the games because of its temperate climate, but in Russia decisions about which city to put forth are made at the center under President Vladimir Putin, with scant input from localities. If the IOC bought into it, so be it.
Related: Why Russia Is No. 1 in Anti-Americanism
Putin has given extraordinarily high priority to the Olympics and depicted the IOC's decision to hold the Games in Sochi as a triumph for Russia and, implicitly, for himself. Far more than other national leaders in host countries in the post-1945 era, Putin has used the Sochi Games as a vehicle to cement a lofty position for himself on the international scene. This dynamic can be seen in the way Putin greeted the arrival of the Olympic flame in Moscow in early November 2013, as recorded by the BBC: "When the Olympic flame first arrived in Moscow, he [Putin] was at the center of an elaborate ceremony on Red Square. With rousing music playing, he strode out of the Kremlin gates on live television and marched up a long red carpet to receive the flame personally. He then stood there, torch in hand as the national anthem played."
All the symbolic measures surrounding the Olympics — sending an Olympic torch into space for a spacewalk and sending another torch to a Russian icebreaker moving through to the North Pole — have been linked to the glorification of Russia as a world power and, implicitly, to the exaltation of Putin as the supreme leader of this great power. This sort of gloss is distasteful, yet it is important to remember that the Chinese authorities engaged in their own disingenuous manipulations when hosting the Games in 2008, depicting them as a tribute to the communist system in China.
Abhorrent though the Russian government's campaign against gays and lesbians has been, calls for a boycott of the Olympics over the vicious homophobia in Russia never seemed persuasive. The Summer Games were held in China in 2008 despite much worse human rights problems there than in Russia, and it would have seemed hypocritical to have boycotted the Sochi Games. Moreover, despite the IOC's strictures, some athletes are bound to use the games to criticize the anti-gay campaign — or at least I hope they do. But even if a boycott would have been inappropriate, it was good that numerous Western leaders stayed away from the opening ceremony on Feb. 7. That sent a message to the Russian authorities — and to other undemocratic regimes — without penalizing athletes who have trained hard for many years.
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