The Olympic games are one of the greatest stages that the international community offers. Rarely does the entire world come together for something that almost everyone cares about, from the politicians to the citizens to the athletes themselves.
There are the G-20 conferences and the United Nations meetings but often these do not influence more than the people involved and those who are particularly interested in current events and politics. When it comes to the Olympics, the entire planet can become enraptured by the stories of perseverance, determination and competition that are on display throughout the two-week event. However, with so many eyes on the games, things outside athletics often come into play.
Rarely have these things been so prominent as they have been in the run-up to this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Obviously, the United States and Russia have never had a cozy relationship, going back to the days of the Cold War. This year, however, there appears to be much more to stoke the fire.
One of the most controversial figures of the past year for the United States has been Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor became well known this past summer when he leaked information that the NSA had been collecting people’s telephone records from Verizon and accessing personal data from Google and Facebook. This caused a major stir in the United States, with many people believing that the government was committing a severe violation of privacy. Snowden then travelled from Hong Kong to Moscow, when Russia eventually granted him temporary asylum, which meant that he could stay in Russia, and they would not send him back to the United States, where he was wanted for espionage and theft.
This was seen as a direct affront to the U.S. government, and President Obama cancelled his planned talks with Russian president Putin. As a result, U.S.-Russia relations were somewhat frayed in the run-up to the Sochi Olympic Games.
The other major conflict in Russia that has brought some controversy into these Olympic games is the Anti-LGBT law that was passed in June. The law bans “non-traditional sexual relations,” and states that visitors can essentially be arrested for being noticeably gay, and any demonstrations for gay-rights are also illegal. From the moment this law was passed, the world was up in arms. It is a blatant discrimination of the LGBT community, a group that while 50 years ago would still have been considered pariahs of many western communities, is today considered by most people to be deserving of equality.
What made the passing of this law especially problematic was that the world would be descending upon Russia just a few months later for the Olympic games. With all the athletes, coaches, officials and spectators traveling to Sochi, there was sure to be a number of gay people in attendance. The question then, was would these people be safe against the discrimination of the Russian government? It is a relatively foreign concept in this day and age to have such state-sponsored discrimination, but that is exactly what LGBT attendees of these Olympics had to worry about.
Putin eventually backtracked on the law, saying that it will not really be enforced during the Olympics, saying, “One can feel calm and at ease. Just leave kids alone please.” However, Putin, who is considered to be one of the most powerful men both in Russia and in the international arena, has proven that he is not afraid to do whatever he wants when it comes to keeping down demonstrations against him and his policies. The feminist band Pussy Riot gained attention from all parts of the globe when their performance in a Russian Orthodox Church criticizing Putin got them thrown in prison. Clearly, Russia is not a place where speaking out and expressing one’s personal views do well for a person when those views are at odds with those in power.
One of the most defining images in the history of the Olympics is that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-American black sprinters, each raising a fist with a black glove on it as a symbol of pride with the Civil Rights Movement during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. This was an extremely visible and successful act of protest during the Olympics. On the other hand, at the urging of then-President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. Olympic Committee decided that they would be boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
Taking place at the height of the Cold War, many people thought that this would be a good way to protest Russia’s recent invasion of Afghanistan. It is considered today to be an utter disaster, as the Olympics went on without them, many innocent athletes were punished and lost the chance to compete, and the U.S. team lost the chance for any real demonstration on the world’s greatest stage.
There has been speculation that the German team’s rainbow coats for the Opening Ceremonies were a symbol of gay pride and protest, but nothing has been made definite. Additionally, Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev showed off a board with a woman wearing a ski mask, a symbol of Pussy Riot.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach also included some pointed remarks in his opening speech, saying, “Yes, yes it is possible, even as competitors, to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” While subtle, these comments from such a high-profile figure undoubtedly carry weight in the international discourse.
With such outspoken resistance against Russia’s laws, it will be interesting to see if there is a moment similar to the protest at Mexico City in these Sochi Games. As the world watches, the crossover between politics and athletics has reached a zenith, and the discussion surrounding these Olympics will take on as much of an identity as the games themselves.