Russia is hosting a sports event – at least, that’s what believers in the Olympic idea say. Public opinion in the west, which is quite enthusiastic about this idea, sees a highly political issue here. Should “our” athlete-ambassadors, delegates and celebrities attend an Olympics in a country with a “bad human rights record”? Will they be safe from terrorist attacks in a country that is both too highly policed and not serious enough about security? Will the hotels provide adequate comforts for western reporters? What about the rights of stray dogs?
Like China in 2008, Russia is seen as not really entitled to host this sports extravaganza. It is clear to all commentators that Sochi must not be judged by whether it is good for skiing, skating and sledding, but as a political issue of the highest order: “we” must not separate politics and sports when it comes to the Olympics because the “thug” in Russia is guilty of a long list of sins – among them, not separating sports and politics, but using the games for his “propaganda purposes” at home and abroad.
Putin: “our” enemy
The western media fills out the picture of the power-mad president in Moscow: a manipulator of a compliant judiciary who suppresses any opposition to himself, a merciless prosecutor of feminist punk rockers, gays and other “enemies of the Kremlin.” He pretends to be a gracious statesman by granting asylum to an outlaw like Edward Snowden. He is busy trampling, exploiting and taunting democratic principles all over the place. He supports dictators like Syria’s Assad and even brokered a weapons deal before the US president could bomb that civil war into shape. And now he’s trying to deny us “our” Ukraine!
Further back in the business pages, a different note is struck. Here the Russian economy is honored for its commodity exports, foreign exchange earnings and its modernization needs which represent tremendous business opportunities. At the same time, it is explained that these good relations with Russia raise political problems: purchasing Russia’s oil and gas serves its ability to use energy as a political weapon. This has to be condemned, but on the other hand, it has to be conceded: after almost a quarter century of capitalism, Russia is back on the world stage as power to be reckoned with.
The reason for western – especially American – hostility toward Putin has nothing to do with his “strong state” program. After all, Russia crushed the rebellion in Chechnya with the west’s blessing because it seemed associated with the same type of Islamic warriors that America is fighting. Rather, Russia resists the US ambition to be the world power without challenge. It has made a calculation that it is not in Russia’s interest to subsume its sovereignty under the west’s economic and political order, as other former socialist states have done. It has its own ambitions. It intends to compete with the west for power and wealth and doesn’t recognize the special interests of Washington DC.
So official relations are tense. Russia is not an enemy to be wiped off the face of the earth like the former Soviet Union; but neither does it accommodate itself to America’s defined world order. Like China, it is a giant trying to make it in the world outside America’s political regime. Otherwise, it is agreeable to negotiating reductions in weapons, engages in normal diplomatic relations, signs treaties, supports cultural exchanges, holds joint inspections and conferences on military developments. And now hosts the Olympics – an event that does not want to restrict itself to fun and games, but serves a higher political task.
The Olympic idea
The real competition between states doesn’t take place in Olympic stadiums, but in markets and sometimes battlefields. The competition for market shares in things like automobiles or financial markets aims to win economic gains for one nation at the expense of the others. Nations need each other for trade, but in the process they damage each other. Organizing these conflicts means that states have to cooperate on a reliable basis, so they agree to settle their competition in the form of treaties which pledge reciprocal rights and duties. Inter-governmental treaties of all types don’t resolve a single conflict, but give them a consensual framework to be carried out in.
Next to this destructive competition between nations, the glorious Olympic idea sets the phoney ideal of a real unity between them. Under the Olympic rings that symbolically connect the continents, a friendship between nations is staged in the form of a collaborative sports festival. The same national collectives that are grinding each other down in trade wars or even in combat are ultimately supposed to be united in heart and mind!
The bad experiences that members of these collectives have in their own nations, as well as in the disputes between their governments, are supposed to take a temporary break during the Olympics while the states project a nice image of themselves and their relations. This contest is for once not about money or power, but about which country is best in sports. And the political baggage that is put on a sports event also gives it its character, which doesn’t do much for the euphoric experience of a community of peoples.
Athletes, spectators on location or via the media, along with the leaders of their respective nations, all unite to form a big national “we” that competes against other national collectives and keeps its fingers crossed for “us.” All the conflicts between the unemployed and the politicians, between workers and managers, between financial speculators and evicted homeowners – these are cast in the image of an intimate community of kindred spirits. The performance of this collective expresses itself in loftier things than their uses for growth. It entitles them to feelings of pride. It certifies a goodness that lies beyond mundane economic indicators like growth or unemployment rates.
This is what nations want recognized in the Olympics, from their fellow citizens as well as from people like them. And it is won or lost in milliseconds and fractions of a millimeter in the games. The nations tellingly deny the official story that the only important thing is to participate. Being represented as a successful and competitive unity of above and below is a question of national honor and easily justifies the millions invested in breeding human high-performance machines whose successes or failures are measured in the nation’s medal count.
On the one hand, every nation counts as an equal in this ideal comparison of performances, regardless of its power and wealth. On the other hand, they fight for top place in a hierarchy which quantifies the honors that are distributed among them. Any nation can win a lot of honor or none at all. Everyone wants to score big, and to be the host of the games is already an honor that states seek to secure with a huge amount of efforts and bribery. Hosting the games signals to the states of the world that this state is not only trustworthy, but fulfills its role as representative of the friendship between nations. Vice versa, the games are also good for other states to revoke this honor by discussing whether respect for the host should be withdrawn – wholly or partially. This aims at a very different world than that of sports; namely, the role that the host plays in the real competition of states.
This mixing of the two worlds – international sports and state competition – is so common that politicians and pundits have for months enjoyed transferring their negative judgment about Russia as an economic and political rival into a bad opinion about the host of a sports festival. And just as calculatingly as in the realpolitik original, they turn this into a balancing act between respect and contempt. Contempt suggests boycotting the games; but that is said to be unfair to the athletes. The American President also knows that would be an open declaration of enmity; he also wants the sports event to take place so that it can exert its useful effects. However, that doesn’t mean opportunities to offend the Russian hosts and damage their international reputation are off the table. Obama and the European leaders publicly announce they won’t attend the games and “send a message” by having openly gay athletes represent their nations at the opening night ceremony. And just to show how serious he is about human rights, Obama sends two Navy warships to the Black Sea.
Public opinion then unites behind the message: Putin does not abide by “our” standards of good rule.
The human rights weapon
Given the fundamental conflict between US and Russian ambitions, it is not surprising that all kinds of things are raised to the level of exhibits to prove that something is wrong with Russia. We learn that Russian prisons are crowded, brutal and unhealthy places; surely, this is hard for Americans to accept, with their humane prison system. And we learn how in Russia protests are banned and roughed up by the cops; certainly, difficult for any freedom-lover to stomach, even if the Occupy protests were not disbanded without force.
The use of gays against Russia is particularly strange, because homosexuality is hardly a non-issue in America; there are at least a half dozen US states that have laws against gays that are no different than Russia’s. The same thing with Pussy Riot. If a punk band disrupted the service at St Patrick’s Cathedral, this would hardly be treated kindly. The whole point is to raise issues as a means of putting diplomatic pressure on Russia. These vary from social to political to foreign policies. Every one of these issues also exists here and somewhere else and is not being raised; a decision has been made to impose diplomatic pressure on Russia.
Criticism of human rights abuses is always the form that official hostility takes. In the language of diplomats, they have “concerns” about this and that. Its always a strong signal that if these concerns are not addressed, it could be taken to another level. A country like Ireland does not have “concerns” about Russia. It lives with Russia whether it likes it or not because there is nothing it can do about it. The US has levels of responses to push its ambitions forward. This is known by all sides.
Good and bad nationalisms
To the surprise of some western reporters, Putin has his fans in Russia. They can be seen in the streets of Sochi waving flags and pumping their fists. Just like citizens here, they celebrate “their” nation’s victories and “their” nation’s rebuilt image. But, obviously, this only shows their inferiority complex!
With around the clock coverage, athletes, sports reporters and the viewing public are all invited to play the game of being honorary inspectors of Russia’s compliance with “our” demands. Some emphasize a positive note: Russia no longer propagandizes its masses with socialism. And the Russian soul has always needed a strong leader. Maybe the Olympics will strengthen democratic forces in that mysterious land? Our good example will make them more like we want them to be! Others express skepticism: the Olympics just provides legitimation for Putin! A dictator like that is going to be “brought to reason” just by the Olympics? We have other means for this!
It goes back and forth. Nothing is decided anyway by the pundits or the public at home or the Olympics, but by those who wield real power in the world.
Geoffrey McDonald edits Ruthless Criticism.