By Ian Buruma
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, organised 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 paedophiles 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 mobilise 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 organisers 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 organised games. Then he became more ambitious and expanded his vision to include other countries.
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 vigour 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 BardCollege. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945.
© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate