Sports fans around the world are riveted on the Olympic Games in Sochi. Dario Cologna’s narrow victory in the men’s 30km skiathlon was a wonderful example of how an athletic event can be transcendent. Dominique Gisin’s winning smile after the downhill was worth its weight in gold. But sports fans are not the only people focused on the Games. Economists are analyzing how $53 billion was spent in preparing the venues and how athletics has morphed into big business/entertainment; diplomats are watching how Vladimir Putin’s pharaonic investment will affect his standing domestically and internationally. What used to be mere athletic contests have turned into a global spectacle with all the ramifications that implies.
International sports and politics are inextricably intertwined. The Olympic Games are one of the largest international sports competitions. In ancient times the Games took place during a truce. And there was not only a true in ancient times. In 1993, almost a century after the modern Olympics were founded, the truce, known as ekecheiria, was revived more formally through the United Nations and observed for the first time at the winter games in Lillehammer a year later. In modern times, however, the games have often been the scene of political controversy rather than harmony.
The Olympic charter clearly states that not only are sports a human right in terms of the right to health of the individual but that there is an important spirit behind the practice of sport. Then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said in a message to the Sydney Olympics in August 2000: “The Olympic Games display the very best of our common humanity. Coming together across virtually every line of race, ethnicity, language, religion, gender and national identity, the athletes – on their own or as members of a team – will scale new heights, set new records and give the world a lesson in international understanding. The Games are a true celebration of humanity. Olympic ideals are also United Nations ideals: tolerance, equality, fair play and most of all peace.”
That’s the ideal. In recent Olympics there have been decisions by countries either to boycott the Games or to bar certain countries from the Games for perceived human rights violations. Although the Games are supposed to be apolitical, reactions to human rights abuses have had political ramifications. International sports, with all the media attention, have become a very public platform for human rights activities. A review of some modern summer games and the issues involved shows this: 1) Berlin 1936 – racism and discrimination; 2) Melbourne 1956 – boycotts and water polo violence; 3) Mexico City 1968 – student riots, black power salute, anti-Soviet protests; 4) Tokyo 1964 - barring South Africa for apartheid; 5) Munich 1972 and Atlanta 1996 – violence; 6) Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles Olympics 1984 – boycotts; 7) Beijing 2008 – specific human rights concerns. The Sochi winter games have seen criticism for the choice of the site near a “war zone” in the Caucasus, Russia’s repressive laws against homosexuals, environmental degradation, etc.
So why do we marvel at the athlete’s prowess? How can we watch what’s happening in Sochi and ignore the horrors of Syria? As Jill Lepore, a professor at Harvard wrote elegantly of the contestants in the New Yorker:
“They fly past, onscreen, in tights and skirts and snow pants. How many ways can man be majestic?... It feels silly to watch endless hours of winter sports every four years, when we never watch them any other time, and we don’t even understand the rules, which doesn’t stop us from scoring everyone, every run, every skate, every race. We are not very quiet on the couch.
“The Olympics is an imperfect interregnum, the parade of nations a fantasy about a peace never won. It offers little relief from strife and no harbor from terror. But winter is the season for fables, and there is, in the poise of hands, grace.”