Monday, March 3, 2014

Politics of the Olympic Games

Every four years, nations come together to compete against each other under a banner of global harmony and awareness. Traditionally, in that spirit, there is not to be political displays or statements; typically, there consistently has been such activity. To begin with, nations compete under the flag of their respective country. That alone is a political statement, engendering all notions and connotations about them. If the Olympics Games were truly meant as an apolitical event, athletes would simply compete under the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) flag. Instead, there is always the prideful underlying “Us vs. Them” attitude:  in 1936, it was All-American Jesse Owens against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany; in 2014, the poster boy would be All-American T.J. Oshie versus Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Of course, both Owens and Oshie would humbly deny their role as geopolitical pawns, but it is present.

Then there was the issue of gay rights and Russia’s anti-gay laws even before the games began in Sochi, Russia. Many nations, including the United States, put forth stern public condemnations and sent representative delegations to underscore the issue. Not a political statement? Baloney. From Hitler to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, many world leaders, politicians and athletes have used the Olympic Games as a platform for advancing both domestic and international issues and agendas.

Putin used the games to highlight, rightly so, a glorious Russian history – absent any references to the atrocities of its past under czars and communists alike. On the international stage, what country would not do the same? Every nation, including the United States, has idealized its own history to paint a rose-colored version for future generations. (After all, the U.S. has witnessed Gone With the Wind winning an Oscar in 1940 to 12 Years A Slave winning in 2014; not only is it telling in terms of the betterment of race relations, but more importantly the changing discussion of slavery 75 and 149 years, respectively, after the American Civil War ended.) For Putin, the games were a two-fold chance to boast both to his fellow citizens and the international community, providing a picture of strength and unity against those who would challenge a modernized Russia.

Now with events unfolding in Crimea and Ukraine, the political reality is even starker. A hamstrung N.A.T.O. vs. a resurgent “Warsaw Pact,” with a na├»ve former community organizer poised against a calculating former KGB agent. Hollow ultimatums and empty threats from President Barack “1980s want their foreign policy back” Obama do not concern President Vladimir “only a strong Russia” Putin. Putin sees a weakened and retreating United States – in no small measure thanks to the failed domestic and foreign policies of the Obama Administration, which has further tanked the economy, gutted military/defense and infuriated allies while appeasing enemies – a European Union in disarray and a N.A.T.O. organization unable to respond without full-fledged support and sustainment from the two. Putin is playing a real-life game of Risk, and so far he has the upper hand in a bold move to test it.

President Obama’s Foreign Policy Is Based On Fantasy (Washington Post)

Why Putin Plays Our Presidents for Fools (National Journal)

Putin's Playbook: The Strategy Behind Russia's Takeover of Crimea (The Atlantic)

Years before the latest Olympic Games and the current crisis, Putin began putting the pawns into place for this scenario. During his first tenure as president, he successfully led the lobbying of the I.O.C. for hosting the Sochi games to put Russia in the spotlight, while re-igniting and asserting the flame of Russian influence throughout its surrounding regions and in the international community. Now, we are witnessing the outcome of that calculating organization, as world leaders attempting to futilely project a position of strength and authority over him play catch-up in their naivety and short-sightedness. No politics in the Olympics? Hardly.

©2014 Steve Sagarra

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