SOCHI, Russia — Each time an Olympics approaches, the ideal is articulated once more: The true spirit of the games, those who oversee them say, brings humanity together to promote amity and athletic excellence. It is most certainly not a place for the affairs of nations and vested interests to play out on a global stage.
“Olympics is not about politics. It’s about the sport, fair play and humanity,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee, said last week, echoing his predecessors. The new president of the International Olympic Committee, Germany’s Thomas Bach, was more nuanced, saying before the games began that his organization must be “politically neutral without being apolitical.”
And yet ...
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In Sochi this week, politics percolates everywhere, which is not unusual. It has lurked at the margins of Olympic Games going back at least to the moment in 1936 in Berlin when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a white supremacist, watched Jesse Owens, a black American, take gold in the 100-meter sprint.
The Olympics, you might say, are the planet’s most political apolitical event.
Consider Friday night’s appearance by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s USA House — and wearing a Team USA pin on his lapel, no less. It was entirely good-natured, but it couldn’t have been more political.
On the surface, it was an Olympics host leader cheerfully glad-handing guests. But below the bonhomie, it was hard not to conjure a stew of words and memories that evoked old suspicions: Cold War, “We will bury you,” spies, the Eastern Bloc, NATO, detente, nuclear proliferation. And new ones, too: Edward Snowden.
Putin is only the most obvious example. To watch the Olympics — and to look beyond the marvelous athletic performances and the uncounted, often unexpected friendships it helps build — is to see a human anthill of scripts and vested interests playing themselves out.
“There is this absolute insistence that there be no politics. I think they have to say that,” says Curt Hamakawa, a U.S. Olympic Committee official for 16 years.
“But the fact of the matter is, that is not true. And it comes across as being a bit hypocritical,” says Hamakawa, now an associate professor of sport management at Western New England University in Massachusetts. “Government and sport is pretty much intertwined for most countries. I don’t know that they can escape from it.”
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Several Olympics of the past half century have been particularly politically charged. Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Games showcased Japan’s return to the global stage after World War II. In 1972, Palestinian attackers killed 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich. And of course there were the boycott years — 1976, 1980 and 1984 — when entire nations (including the United States and the Soviet Union) stayed away because rivals either were there or were hosting.
Front and center this time around is the disconnect between Russia’s strict attitude toward gays and voices around the world that take issue with its approach. Despite some predictions that gay athletes or their supporters might turn Olympic spectacles into political ones, it hadn’t happened as of Saturday.
Then there are the leaders who stay away — and sometimes make comments about the games from afar. President Barack Obama’s decision not to come, for one, has been speculated about by many. Was it because of scheduling, geopolitics, or both?
At the games, Olympic politics can take many forms. There is a flap about athletes’ yogurt — fueled by politics in the form of a low-level customs dispute between Russia and the United States. There is the fact that Taiwan must compete as “Chinese Taipei” because of a six-decade schism with mainland China. There are faces upon faces painted with national flags — signs of exuberance, yes, but also human political metaphors in miniature.
There is Ukraine, gripped with unrest as it tries to secure an Olympic-city bid for 2022. “The Olympic sports, the Olympics ideas, the Olympic movement, this is above any politics and Ukraine will resolve all of its political problems and all of its political issues,” its acting deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Vilkul, said in Sochi a few days ago.
And there is India. Barred from flying its flag at the Sochi Games because of internal corruption, it was granted a reprieve only a few days ago, allowing its athletes to avert competing independently in a gathering organized around national pride.
“The whole world is watching. And when the Indian flag doesn’t fly, people know that it’s because of corruption and it’s not a nice image for the country,” Indian luger Shiva Keshavan, a five-time Olympian, said after his country was reinstated.
“You have a lot more behind you when you go with your country’s flag,” he said.
That’s it exactly. As much as it purports to be about the individual athletes and their achievements (and it is), an Olympics is also about countries. And countries — every one of them — carry a lot of baggage, particularly in their relationships with other countries. To put their athletes upon fields of play and expect it to be about only sport is, to be blunt, naive.
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Bach sees this. Since he began his tenure as IOC president in September, his statements suggest he is trying to balance the no-politicking spirit of the Olympics and the reality of the 21st-century world. On the day he was elected, he acknowledged that the IOC “cannot be apolitical” — at least not entirely.
“We have to realize that our decisions at events like Olympic Games, they have political implications,” he said. “And when taking these decisions we have to, of course, consider political implications,” he said. “But in order to fulfill our role to make sure that in the Olympic Games and for the participants the charter is respected, we have to be strictly politically neutral.”
And earlier this month, just before the games began, he offered this about the Olympic movement’s role in the debate over gays: “We are not a supra-national government. We are not a superior world parliament. We do not have a mandate to impose measures on sovereign states.”
Bach himself has flirted with politics in his attempt to be apolitical. He criticized former President George W. Bush — not by name — for injecting a 9/11 reference into a speech at the opening of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. At the Sochi opening ceremony, Bach called on the world’s leaders to “have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”
Opening ceremonies, in fact, are packed with politics. At their most basic, they represent a nation’s attempt to put its best foot forward to a watching world. That makes for compelling storytelling, but it’s hard to depict an entire country without politics creeping in.
Sochi’s opening, for example, featured a stylishly executed segment about the Soviet era, including some oblique imagery of hammer-and-sickle communism that might not sit well with many who were oppressed by the system over the decades.
Maybe the surfacing of politics is inevitable, even healthy, particularly in the country that gave rise to the story of the Potemkin Village, fake settlements built to hide what’s really going on. Maybe, too, the ideal of no politics is necessary, even if the reality doesn’t measure up. Particularly if the reality doesn’t measure up.
In the end, politics exists for a reason: The alternative, war, is far worse. Politics is humanity’s attempt to work things out and keep all interests satisfied. And that is precisely what happens at an Olympic Games — sometimes with more success, sometimes with less, always trying.
Just ask the Russians applauding for American slopestylers this past week. Or, in a case where the Olympic ideal worked, ask the Russian and Georgian air-pistol medalists who hugged on the podium during the 2008 Beijing Games while their countries fought.
Or today: Look at the American and Russian hockey fans gathering in Olympic Park 34 years after their teams met in much darker times for two countries that had, and have, the power to destroy life on Earth. Hours before the big U.S.-Russia game Saturday, they offered a tableau of the apolitical political Olympics, a measure of our contradictory times.
Instead of jeering, instead of clashing, they wrapped themselves in their respective flags and hugged, united in the spirit of an activity that transcends any national interests: posing for a souvenir smartphone snapshot. The Olympic ideal in action.
“Sports should live its own life and politics should live its own life,” said Velieri Bobrov of Sochi, a spectator in Olympic Park. “There is no need for politics here.”