As I write this, the Putin Games are entering their second week. Between the regular reports of orange water coming out of the taps, unfinished hotel rooms and displaced locals made homeless in favor of still unfinished Olympic venues, my sporting spirit has taken a proper beating. Putin has spent 50 billion on this misplaced attempt to depict Mother Russia as a shiny, modern superpower. These games have already featured a foiled hijacking, stray dogs marked for death, Black Widows planning a major attack, a 12 minute opening ceremony tribute to War & Peace and a bit of neon lit snow that refused to transform into the fifth Olympic ring, the little flake.
Athletes from 88 countries have convinced themselves that a lifetime of training in barter for a transient and distant shot at a “gold” medal is somehow worth the candle. Appearing on the Wheaties box seems just a bit counterfeit, doesn’t it? That said, you have to admire the athlete’s dedication and great stories appear every time. Still, the International Olympic Committee has enabled Putin’s despotism by allowing him to massage his outsized ego on an international stage. Some things are best done in private. 14 gay activists have been arrested for protesting in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Most were waving rainbow flags in Red Square in defiance of the anti “gay propaganda” laws.
The Olympic Games have always been political in nature from Hitler’s Games of 1936 to bloodshed at the 1972 Games in Munich to the raised, black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968. Jimmy Carter declared that the 1980 U.S, Olympic team would stay home, thanks to a foreign war of aggression waged by the then Soviet Union. Our own current wars of aggression on the middle class, the poor, The Fourth Amendment, Afghanistan, Iraq and drone strike victims everywhere have made the Stars and Stripes more than welcome in Sochi.
For bloggers of a certain age, Eastern Bloc athletes were once exotic. Picture the mechanized perfection of Romania’s Nadia Comaneci in 1976. Who can forget her historic score being displayed as 1.00? The scoreboard was not set up to read ’10’, so unattainable was once that mark. Gymnast Olga Korbut taught Americans that a Soviet could smile and wind up moving to Atlanta to pick up a shoplifting charge. Years later, Comaneci escaped by night from Ceausescu’s Romania and emigrated to the U.S. She is now a complete stranger to the Russian satellite she once personified and sadly, less exotic. The old East Germany piled up gold medals like cord wood, using chemically engineered women with men as starter kits. If only they had brought enough for everyone. Though the many athletes now competing had no control in Putin being handed this opportunity for savagely built Geo-political stagecraft, they are complicit nonetheless.
They are the willing set pieces in the most obvious kind of nationalism. They are short term inhabitants of Putin’s Potemkin village. Unfortunately, the many newly homeless and permanent denizens of Sochi will not share in any of the 50 billion spent to make a dictatorship appear friendly, progressive, fun and otherwise palatable. The Olympics should only continue in nations truly devoted to personal freedom. As Edward Snowden has proven, that would leave the United States out of the hosting duties for the foreseeable future. We are a national security state, the same thing that Putin’s Russia makes no effort to hide from Western eyes in non Olympic years.
Beyond all of this, the only true constant for the Olympic movement is commercialism. As long as the Games are sponsored by the likes of Mastercard, Chrysler and Chevrolet, let the sponsors pay the athletes’ way so the thin lie of amateurism can be put away for good. I will endure a few minutes of the biathlon and short track speed skating if the bucks are being made without pretense, just as every superpower aspires to do. Let the athletes get paid for their efforts and there should be plenty left over for NBC. Putin hopes to draw tourists to post Olympic Sochi as the bombers from Chechnya wait for the right time to strike. He wants money and tourists, the Revolution of 1917, Karl Marx and Stalin notwithstanding. If only inherently corrupt social experiments didn’t cost uncounted lives. There was no trace of them in Sochi’s Opening Ceremonies anyway.
I have chosen not to watch these Games because of the powerless and forgotten victims of Putin’s egotism, the latest being members of Pussy Riot, who have been arrested and whipped by the Cossack Militia. Yes, the Cossack Militia! NBC won’t notice my one man boycott but I will. The love of money and prestige, not “amateur” athletics played in the spirit of brotherhood, is the real issue here. The other issue is Putin dabbing a thin veneer of plasticized tolerance over an unreconstructed dictatorship so Western tourists will fly to the Sochi ski slopes after the Olympic flame is doused.
Couldn’t the rousing Russian Bear have simply copped to that in the first place?