Why I won’t be watching the Sochi Olympics

I was a huge fan of the Olympics when I was growing up, probably ever since I had to do a book report on Jesse Owens when I was in elementary school. I knew about the problems in the past — and have had an emerging appreciation for the difficulties and tribulations it causes the residents of host cities, particularly the lower-income folks. But, broadly speaking, I believed it was one of those things that had an important ideal for humanity even if it didn’t always meet it.

When I say I was a huge fan, I mean huge. In fact, from February 2002 (i.e. Salt Lake) to some time around February 2006 — maybe later even — my bedroom was always decorated with Olympics-related stuff. As a kid, I knew an insane amount arcane trivia about various Olympics, and I’m not even really big into sports. I even had an Olympics-themed birthday party one year. I’ve stayed up late so many summers and winters, night after night, to watch the games. I was very disappointed not to have a TV in 2010 for the Vancouver Games and kept trying to find TVs playing it in public spaces. In 2012, despite all the annoying tape-delay BS, I was relieved I had a TV to watch the London games.

This year, I would have all the time in the world and my own TV. But I won’t be watching any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Not after everything that’s happened in the run-up to it.

Beyond the horrible anti-gay policies and crackdowns coming from Russia itself, the International Olympic Committee’s response has been utterly disgraceful and irredeemable. I expect a certain amount of wishy-washiness and looking the other way because there’s only so much they can do once they’ve awarded the location.

But I don’t expect them to act like (or say out loud that) everything is the fault of the critics — or even, in the case of some individual committee members, to endorse the terror coming out of the Russian state and society. The I.O.C. is embarrassing itself on a massive scale and doesn’t even seem to realize it. They’re signaling to everyone that they haven’t put their corrupt days behind them, whether financial or moral. All that bad stuff in the past? It’s actually still here. It never went away.

The U.S. sponsors and NBC have also been almost as bad. I have no interest in watching their coverage and contributing to that. I’m not really up for boycotting any products, though, if only because the dozen or so huge corporations sponsoring the U.S. Olympic Committee basically make everything so it would be hard to do … and because I suspect any pressure campaign needed to start a year or so ago to have any kind of impact. Now the ship is already sailing and no amount of boycotting U.S. sponsors is going to change anything.

What about Beijing?

Of course, it’s certainly interesting to see the difference in how people are reacting to these Russian games versus the 2008 Chinese games. I think there’s some sort of double standard in place, to a certain extent. I haven’t really thought it through, but I’m going to guess it’s probably because Russia has long pitched itself as a Westernizing, European nation, while China has not, so China is given a bit of a pass. There are, as well, probably some messed up, condescending Western attitudes about the Chinese and how they are governed that are also contributing to the double standard.

That being said, I think it’s still a valid assessment that China at least made an effort for almost a decade to improve itself and its public image and put its best foot forward to the world. A lot of that was obviously cosmetic, rather than substantive, but most people generally respect that level of P.R. effort. In stark contrast, Russia seems to have approached its bid as an opportunity to send the world a giant “F*** You.” As in, “You gave us these games. Now you’re stuck with us and you can’t do a thing about it.”

That’s the really galling part. The Russian leadership (i.e. Putin) could easily have suppressed all this vicious garbage and avoided a black eye in the West. But instead, the entire Russian political machine ground into action to formalize endemic societal bigotry and help whip up the (already well-primed) population into a violent frenzy that has resulted in many brutal attacks and murders. So, Russia is essentially declaring to the world: “This is not our darker side. This is us. This is the version of us that we want the world to see and associate with us.”

Watching the games is rewarding all of that and validating the Russian leadership’s belief that there are no consequences for anything they do. And it’s giving the I.O.C. a pass that says self-righteous neutrality is a legitimate response and that human rights are a “political issue.”

Security and repression

Another thing to keep in mind that differentiates Russia and China is that — and I say this at the risk of playing “oppression olympics” (no joke intended) — while both have histories of political and ethnic repression, China had put a lot of the mass-scale atrocities behind it at the time of the 2008 Olympics. There’s relatively frequent leadership turnover there now and the worst stuff seems to be in the past. There’s a lingering political non-freedom, of course, but that’s not new.

Russia, in contrast, emerged into the sunlight for a brief period and then tried to go back into the cave. There’s a deliberate regression on the political front. And worse, the exact same leadership now in power led many of the worst post-Soviet atrocities of ethnic minorities — which have occurred on a scale far greater than any of China’s post-1989 atrocities.

One of the biggest concerns expressed about these games, beyond the anti-gay terror, has been the security situation. For the U.S. media this is a sort of inexplicable, mysterious threat that must be worse because of its relative geographic proximity to the regions most affected by violence. In reality, the “terrorist” threat in Russia — which was well known when the games were awarded — is a direct response to horrific state massacres and ethnic cleansing campaigns that the current Russian leadership has carried over directly from the Stalinist period.

Vladimir Putin is more or less one of those directly responsible for the fact that 10% of the entire Chechen civilian population died during the First and Second Chechen Wars after the Soviet Union broke up. He’s certainly responsible for the Second Chechen War and the repressions that followed. Yes, it’s amazing that terrorism might be a problem from a minority population that has just seen one in ten of its brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters killed by the state over a 15 year period.

Trying to host the games in the face of a large terrorist threat — and trying to host them close to the contested regions — seems like yet another defiant “F*** You” from Russia’s leadership to anyone that ever doubted it — or questioned/criticized its policies. But instead of the defiance being limited to anti-gay policies, it’s also about policies against another minority population.

These are the Olympic Games of a proud, open employer of state terror against all those who do not conform. At least the Chinese had the decency to try to pretend otherwise, for the most part, ahead of their games, in adherence to the theoretical ideals of the Olympic Spirit. Russia’s leaders want the whole world to see the course they are on and to admit that no one can do anything about it.

I wish the athletes the best of luck — I know they’re generally just caught in the middle while trying to do their thing, at great personal cost that prevents them from turning back now — and I hope they don’t say terrible things while there (as some have already done). But, all the same, I won’t be watching any of it.

Will that have any effect? No. But at least I won’t feel I’m participating or tacitly condoning what’s going on either.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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