Whether taking place during summer or winter, doctor the Olympic Games have rarely been free from the baggage of politics. In their modern conception, treat they have served as an opportunity for the host state to promote its reputation and prestige abroad, and for other countries to respond with diplomatic manoeuvres of their own, usually of the provocative and confrontational variety. The 1936 Berlin Olympics gave the Nazi Party a wider platform than ever to display a resurgent and rearming Germany to the world. This was notably demonstrated in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Olympia, which received critical acclaim across Europe. Yet in response to threatened boycotts, Adolf Hitler relented by allowing black and Jewish athletes to compete. Even though the Nuremberg Laws had already stipulated otherwise the previous year, signs forbidding Jews to enter public buildings were temporarily taken down as part of an effort to clean up the Third Reich’s image abroad.
Such hollow PR tactics somewhat resonate with Putin’s two-faced handling of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Apart from giving a vague assurance to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that athletes of all sexual orientation were welcome to compete, the Russian president has made no sign of backing down on the federal anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law passed in July 2013. This law explicitly bans the circulation of material relating to homosexuality in the media and online to minors. Along with earlier legislation banning gay pride parades, such laws have served to give an air of legitimacy to homophobic attacks by far right groups, as confirmed by a number of online videos uploaded by Human Rights Watch. Echoing Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which culminated in the absence of over sixty nations at the games, US president Barack Obama, along with David Cameron, François Hollande, and German head of state Joachim Guack did not attend the opening ceremony at Russia’s largest resort city on Friday 7 February. This was despite allowing their athletes to participate. Since none of these leaders has issued a specific statement explaining their refusal to attend, their actions have been publicly interpreted as a protest over Russia’s growing legal crackdown on LGBT rights. The diplomatic reality of this is far less principled, more complex, and ultimately hypocritical.
Obama has so far tread a careful if contradictory line in the media when questioned about Sochi. While claiming to “have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that are harmful to them,” the American president has yet to comment on Saudi Arabia’s routine flogging and imprisonment, and sometime execution of known homosexual and transgender citizens. As part of his first tour of the Middle East in 2009, Obama not only highlighted the two states’ ‘“ong history of friendship,” but even said he was “struck by the wisdom and graciousness” of King Abdullah. In spite of the US State Department’s claim to prioritising LGBT issues as part of Obama’s foreign policy, it seems that when it comes to America’s second largest supplier of crude oil, trade trumps human rights.
Another motive behind Obama’s stern, reluctant co-operation with Russia’s hosting is arguably Putin’s decision last August, albeit after much deliberation, to grant whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum. Moscow’s ability to frustrate unpopular American attempts to intervene in Syria has not helped either. On the 5 February, Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Moscow, announced his decision to return to the US after only two years of residence in Russia. While stating that his decision to return home was based on the need to be reunited with his family, the very fact that he made his announcement only days before the Games began cannot be dismissed as coincidental. While neither the head of state nor her ambassador are representing the US at Sochi, he has sent two openly gay athletes to compete, and Obama even publicly admitted to permitting counter-terrorism experts to co-operate with Russian security forces in planning for potential terrorist threats. America’s policy towards Putin over Sochi has therefore been awkward rather than confrontational, the diplomatic equivalent of a snide, backhanded comment.
At $51 billion, Sochi has been the most expensive in Olympic history. More reminiscent of Caligula than Ceau?escu, Russian preparation, closely overseen by Putin, has been characterised by excess, sloppiness, and corruption. Despite originally projected at around $40m, a ski jumping to the north of the city ended up costing $265m due to construction flaws. The engineer formerly in charge of the project has since fled to the UK after being dismissed, likely more out of fear than frustration. Hundreds of Serb and Bosnian migrant workers quickly returned home due to poor working conditions, a lack of pay, and threats from employers. Following complaints by journalists housed in the recently built Black Sea Resort about a lack of running water, it transpired that surveillance cameras had been placed near showers in guestrooms. One completely unexpected problem has arisen from packs of stray dogs roaming the Olympic park, not to mention wandering into newly built hotels. An International Olympic Committee spokesman was assured (likely by Russian deputy president Dimitry Kozak) that these animals would be “taken into custody and assessed.”
Regardless of the fact that Sochi has not only increased Putin’s unpopularity abroad, but also given Western states a window to publicly criticise his administration, the Games have done everything but undermine his leadership at home. According to a federal poll published on 5 February, less than a fifth of Russians believe that Sochi was an attempt by the Russian president to personally enhance his image, with nearly a half of all surveyed claiming that he was largely unconnected to corruption allegations. Similarly, a poll conducted across forty five regions in January confirmed that his approval rating has returned to a level not seen since he was first elected president in May 2000. Since being re-elected in 2012, many Russian nationalists have arguably developed a siege mentality in reaction to increased criticism abroad. Most recently seen in its most hilarious, cringe-worthy and awkward form, Brendan O’Connor’s already infamous interview with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot on 1 February – their first European interview since being released from prison. In other words, both Putin’s policy of manipulating the IOC-much of the grant money has gone towards developing permanent infrastructure in the region. This is contrary to spending guidelines. His nonchalant, unapologetic stance towards the west, may very well hugely benefit his ambition to be perceived as a father figure and national saviour.
In this writer’s view, there is only one other possible aftermath more appalling than this: The former lead singer of Fr. Brian & The Fun Lovin’ Criminals, known for their hit Whose in the House?, may very well go on to make history twice, thanks to his masterclass in how not to interview political dissidents, nor criticise Vladimir Putin on the Saturday Night Show.