Last week, I helped a student with a current-events essay of his own choosing. He selected an excellent topic: the meaning of the Olympics. Are the games a platform for peace and solidarity through civilian statesmanship? Or are they a highly visible stage for flexing geopolitical muscle? Because this is a complicated world, the answer is: both! We have all witnessed international superstars like Nadia Comaneci thawing public attitudes during the Cold War. We have seen countless Olympic stadiums packed with families and fans from every imaginable country, sitting side-by-side. We have seen athletes from warring nations shake hands or hug on the podium. On the other hand, we also remember controversial boycotts and attendances, Hitler’s exclusion of Jews from the Olympic team, and even acts of terrorism.
This year, of course, the Winter Olympics are in Russia. The event has certainly drawn a lot of attention to the policies of President Putin and the national government. Even seemingly mundane details as construction contracts have raised eyebrows. Suspicions are that artificially high bids were awarded to contractors close to Putin. The cost comes out of public coffers, probably lubricated by bribes in high places.
In the months leading up to the games, Russian authorities released several controversial prisoners. In December, Putin granted amnesty to members of Pussy Riot and Greenpeace who had been detained for months or years. All had been arrested on charges of “hooliganism.” Most outsiders had seen the arrests as a thinly veiled suppression of free speech directed against the Russian church and state. With the Olympics only two months away, many observers speculated that Putin felt uncomfortable justifying the protesters’ continued imprisonment in a glaring global spotlight. It’s good to know that Olympic media pressure can make a difference like that. On the other hand, forcing governments into momentary good behavior only permits them to wiggle out of criticism when all eyes are on them. It’s easy to put on a good face for a few weeks. One of the pardoned Pussy Riot members actually wanted to finish serving her term in prison. Her ongoing sentence through the Olympics would have made a much stronger statement than her unheralded pardon and release a few months early.
Two ongoing Olympic themes are especially related to issues addressed in Chapter 1 of this book: Russia’s gay propaganda laws, and the threat of Chechen terrorists.
Russia has had a complicated history with gay rights. Homosexuality has only been legal since the 1990s. In the ‘00s, regional governments started passing laws forbidding gay “propaganda” in the presence of minors. Last year, the federal government officially made the ban nationwide. The punishment has generally been fines on gay rights activists. Gay pride parades are not permitted. The stated purpose is to protect children from the overtly sexual displays that can characterize gay activism. In so doing, of course, it is quite a damper on free expression. It also strikes most Westerners as old-fashioned, as if homosexuality should be shameful and as if propaganda influences children to become gay. The Russian government in turn has been fined for supporting this law, in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. But the law still stands, and actually has widespread support among Russian parents. For the record, here is an English translation of the actual text. I have arranged it in outline form for the sake of readability:
of non-traditional sexual relations
expressed in distribution of information that is aimed at
- the formation among minors of non-traditional sexual attitudes,
- attractiveness of non-traditional sexual relations,
- misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations,
- or enforcing information about non-traditional sexual relations that evokes interest to such relations,
if these actions do not constitute a criminal offense,
is punishable by an administrative fine.”
(Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses)
This law has pitted conservative (especially Russian) and liberal (especially Western) views about the gay pride / civil rights movement directly against each other. As the Olympics began, Google’s home page featured a quote from the Olympic Charter:
“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
This was a little bit of an overreaction, because Russia had imposed no discrimination against gay athletes themselves. But it made the point, a contrast of moral values.
As the games approached, there was a lot of speculation about whether foreign activists would be punished under the law. Some athletes themselves had to decide whether to protest the law or respect the host country. So far, protest has been subtle and unpunished. The US official delegation to the Olympics includes three gay members, including Brian Boitano, who came out publicly after being assigned to the committee. A silver medal has been dedicated to “gay friends back home.” Rainbows have been painted on fingernails. In summary, the law and its reactions have produced a peaceful collision of cultural values, a dialogue that is a little more global than it was last year.
Another major theme of this Olympiad is the threat of terrorism. Sochi is located on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus region, not far from Chechnya and Dagestan. Since the Chechen wars, this area has become an increasingly popular destination for violent jihadists. (The Boston Marathon bombers were from Dagestan). In 2007, separatist leader Doku Umarov founded the Caucasus Emirate. This militant organization strives for an autonomous Caucasus under Shariah Law. With only about 1,000 members, their vision is overblown. However, so is their passion against Russia and especially Putin, with fresh war memories and lingering depression. Russia cast the Olympics in the Caucasus partly as a strategic effort to attract tourists and foreign investment, to revitalize the regional economy on Moscow’s terms. Nothing could be worse for the Islamist isolationists. Local separatists know that one single blow at Sochi would keep foreigners out for years. It would be a perfect target.
The Caucasus Emirate has been very active in recent months. In the city of Volgograd, a major travel hub toward Sochi, it has bombed buses and trains three times since October. Dozens of civilians were killed. The Emirate also committed public murders in Stavropol last month. None of these attacks were expressly Olympic-related. However, direct threats have been made. In a January video, two Emirate members warned, “If it happens [the Olympics], we’ll have a surprise for you. This is for all the Muslim blood that is shed every day around the world, be it in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, all around the world. This will be our revenge.” Influential cleric Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi has approved of the recent bombings in a manner that some see as a fatwa. “They are careful to demonstrate security stability in their country especially with the approaching Olympics,” he wrote last month, “so shaking such stability is a required matter and an intended target.” The threats are taken very seriously. Russian forces have created a massive “ring of security” around Sochi.
The Emirate’s notorious female suicide bombers are known as “black widows,” because many of them lost their husbands in the Chechen wars. Last month, there was a rumor that a black widow had already penetrated the ring of security and was lying in wait. Now it is unclear whether she is actually there. With their ongoing success with “soft” (less centralized, more vulnerable targets) it seems likelier that terrorists would strike somewhere outside the main Olympic village. Some experts have assessed a bombing attempt as “almost certain.”
Last year, Umarov himself encouraged attacks against the Olympics. He was reportedly killed by Russian special forces last month. Now, thankfully, the rebels may be too disorganized to launch a successful attack. “That’s why all the talk about the threats to Sochi are absolutely groundless,” said (legitimate) Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. So far so good!
The Olympics are complicated. In the end, though, we keep coming back to them every two years. That’s because of the true spirit of the games. They are about inspiration, competition at the highest level, and sportsmanship. One of the best moments this month has been the figure skating routine of Jeremy Abbott. American Abbott fell hard during his routine. Yet the crowd, mostly Russians, encouraged him to get up and finish, and cheered him on through the rest of his performance. Despite the forum that they provide for noisemakers, the Olympics foster peaceful cooperation and cultural intermingling. It is important for everyone to see such international camaraderie; it helps make world peace palpable. Beyond that, of course the games provide an important goal for the very best athletes and their families. We can’t help being intrigued by the world’s best. We will always love to see them represent our home countries in battles of peace.
References (in no particular order)