Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sochi 2014: Burden or Blessing?

What will Russia be like in 2014? This is the first thought arising, after the initial joy of learning that Sochi won its candidacy for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The next thought is what the games will do to wonderful Sochi, sprawling by the Black Sea at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. And, indeed, what will the Olympics do to Russia?

As much as one feels joy for Sochi and Russia, one is filled with apprehension of what role the Olympics might play in the development of future Russia. On the positive side, though, it is delightful that nowadays major sports' events go to Eastern Europe. Earlier this year, Kiev and Warzaw were granted the UEFA 2012 soccer championship, and one might expect similar events to take place in other East European countries in the future. This is a clear sign that Eastern Europe has come out of the shadows of the 1990s, and that these states are now on the verge of being considered equals among nations, in the very subjective eyes of the world.

Also, arranging the Olympics will bring jobs, growth, and development to the Russian Black Sea region. The downside of it is, of course, the negative side-effects of exploitation, and Greenpeace has been an ardent opponent of Sochi's Olympic bid, fearing devastating consequences to the unique and fragile natural environment of the region.

The major fear though, is what political role an Olympic game may play for an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Historically, the Olypmpics have too often been exploited for political reasons, and used as a vehicle for competition instead of cooperation between states. Starting with the Berlin 1936 Olympics, the games have at times been an instrument of propaganda, instead of the vehicle to bring nations together in the peaceful exercise of sports, as intended by the Olympic ideals. At the peak of the Cold War, the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 summer games serve to illustrate how far from these ideals states may go - even in sports - to pursue petty propaganda interests.

The Soviet discovery of the propaganda value of sports also has a tragic history. Already in the 1950s, Stalin initiated what, by some, has been called the Soviet sports' war, as part of the growing international tension of the early Cold War period. In the 1960s, a whole generation of soviet children was screened for athletic aptitude, and thousands of potential talents were put into special sports' schools from an early age. However, far from everyone can become a champion, and the ones - the overwhelming majority - that failed in the constant competition were discarded with little education or ability else than the mere force and tenacity they had acquired through a life-long existence of training. It was simply a spoil-system beyond imagination.

The reality facing the outcasts of soviet sports was a downfall from the pinnacle of society to the bottom of the social ladder. The only alternative to the sort of menial labour, where physical strength was demanded, was to enter a life of crime. Thus, the sportsmeny formed an ideal breeding-ground for organised crime. They possessed all the qualities - cultivated from an early age - needed for success within this line of business: ambition, competitiveness, ruthlessness, discipline, resolution, loyalty, and team-spirit. As society had turned their back on them, they now turned their backs on society, and in the chaos of soviet demise achieved many of the successes in crime that they had been denied in sports.

However, what was most frightening with the development of soviet sports, was how it excacerbated the elitist ideology of the system. Sports came to epitomise the cult of strength associated with totalitarianism. It was an ideology thriving on the comtempt for weakness, in which masculinity was associated with strength and purity, and femininity with weakness and impurity. That this cult of masculine strength had homoerotic overtunes - as was the case in Nazi Germany - is still evident in current Russian society. With no intention of offence by such a comparison, it would be quite impossible to even imagine Putin's Western contemporaries - such as Schröder, Chirac, or Blair - posing for "swimsuit pictures" as a means of improving their political image. Still, this kind of pictures of Putin and other Russian politicians are easily available on the Internet. Even an upright liberal as former SPS-leader Boris Nemtsov - and incidentally also the great son of Sochi - posts "glamour pictures" on his personal website. What Putin and Nemtsov have in common is that they both belong to the generation of soviet sports, which now forms the leadership of Russia. How the élitist ideals that formed Putin's generation will express themselves in tandem with the 2014 Sochi Olympics is only for the future to see. Still, sports and politics is not a good mixture for a state in authoritarian spin.

It is true that the father of the Olympic movement, count de Coubertin, formulated the motto of the games as Citius, Altius, Fortius - Swifter, Higher, Stronger. However, this expresses an ambition for the common improvement and development of mankind through sports, instead of the competitive elimination between individuals and nations that signifies élitism. Indeed, the very symbol of the games - the olympic rings - represent the unity of the continents, and in ancient Greece, the Olympics stood out as a period of peace, even during times of turmoil and war. As count the Coubertin himself stated: "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

As Russia has now been awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, it is an invaluable opportunity for the country to reach recognition among nations by striving to fulfill the Olympic ideals also for its people and politics. One can thus only hope that Russia's leaders will be wise enough to embrace these ideals for the benefit of society, instead of using it for purposes of political propaganda in an era of increasing international tension. Or else it can become a burden for future Russian generations, instead of the blessing it might bring. However, nobody knows what Russia will be like in 2014.


Anonymous said...

Sochi has already lost much of its cultural appeal. It is more or less the same as another commercialised resort. I expect that the games will only add further to its cultural decline.

Having said that I think Sochi is a great site for the games. Russia and the local region (including Ukraine/Crimea) will benefit significantly from the games being held in this region. Unlike 1980 when the USA forced a boycott of the Moscow games (because Russia had invaded Afghanistan) hopefully the 2014 winter games will be free from petty politics and the only competition will be in the events.

What Russia needs to do more then anything is revise and free up its restrictive short stay visa regime. Living in Ukraine I would love the opportunity to visit Southern Russia more frequently but the visa requirements are a real show stopper. The sooner Russia address the visa issue the sooner tourism in the region will take off. Ukraine is part tej way there (Although it has not yet brought its visa requirements in line with other European States)

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Ukraine Today,

I share most of your views, but am still worried about what the Olympics might bring, and also agree with some of the Greenpeace critque. Although the coastline is quite heavily exploited, this has not yet wholly become the case with adjoining areas, where I believe many of the arenas and facilities will be constructed.

So, I am happy for Russia's and Sochi's sake, but am still concerned about how Moscow might exploit the Olympics. The tendencies towards a brutalised and élitist society are strong enough as it is already in current Russia, why I would dread the Olympics to further excacerbate this trend.



KRISTIN said...

I saw the news on TV and right after that Putin said it was an acknowledgment of Russia for it's success in economics and social sphere AND, as he emphasized, the acceptance came from a most INDEPENDENT organization.
I think there's NOTHING in the world that Putin would not use as a mean of propaganda and behind Putin's back is the biggest part of Russians.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Kristin,

I agree with your comment. Still, would any other Russian leader have done it differently? I don't think so. Recognition is a recurrent theme in Russian history, so I belive anyone would act the same out of gut feeling, if for no other reason.



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Anonymous said...

I agree with ukrainetoday about the short-term visa situation. It will be interesting to see how the Olympics will change the current regime.


Anonymous said...

i can only imagine good things can come with this

Martin said...

Will follow your blog! Great post!

Safiya Outlines said...

I came to your blog via Natalia's.

That was a very interesting post, very insightful.

Interestingly, the Sochi bid had wall to wall adverts on Euronews. I wonder if E.U funding is involved at some level?

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