The 2014 Winter Olympics begin later this week in Sochi, Russia, and I’m genuinely conflicted. On the one hand, I genuinely like watching all of the winter sports being contested by athletes from around the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s hockey, skiing, curling, or the biathlon – I’ll watch nearly every event that’s being shown because the platonic ideal of the Olympics is undeniably attractive. Athletes struggling, enduring, and achieving, not for filthy lucre but as testaments to the power of the human spirit, competing against one another in a spectacle worthy of being held only once every four years – who can say no to that? On the other hand, I’ve read and learned entirely too much about what goes on around the Olympics over the years to ever focus my mind solely on the games themselves. For every actual sporting moment that comes within reach of the ideal, there’s some other aspect that leaves you shaking your head.
For starters, there’s the cheating. Whether it’s crooked judging, dozens of disqualifications over the years for the use performance-enhancing drugs, or sending a race official to cross the slalom course and slow down an Austrian competitor, plenty of Olympic athletes (and their national committees) are willing to break the rules for seemingly any advantage they can get.
Then you have the corruption. The IOC has weathered almost as many corruption scandals as it has put on Olympiads. National committees frequently lie about competitors’s ages. But this year’s installment has become perhaps the most corrupt in Olympic history. Russia has gone $40 billion over budget for the Sochi games, an overrun being blamed on the cost of Vladimir Putin handing out spoils to his chosen favorite oligarchs. For comparison, the entire 2010 Vancouver games cost less than has been spent on a single construction project at Sochi: a 30-mile road between venues that’s become the largest construction contract in Russian history.
And of course, it wouldn’t be the Olympics without someone using the games as a political tool. Governments have always found ways to exploit hosting the Olympics. Hitler used the Berlin games as worldwide propaganda for his Nazi regime. China used the Beijing games to counter its authoritarian image with a friendly face. Mexico killed protestors who complained about the expense of the games in 1968. And today Putin and the Russians are looking to show the world how wealthy and competent they are – not to mention how their resort towns are free of gay people. Non-host countries have boycotted the games on and off for political reasons since the 1950s, too, particularly at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s when the Americans and Soviets traded boycotts of the Moscow and Los Angeles games.
Non-state actors have also historically used the Olympics for political acts, most notably when the Palestinian terrorist group Black September kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. The United States dealt with its own extremist threat in 1996 when Eric Rudolph bombed Atlanta’s Centennial Park. This year at least one militant separatist group from the neighboring North Caucasus region is pledging to attack the Sochi games in return for “Muslim blood being spilled all around the world.” To counter that threat, Putin has stationed tens of thousands of soldiers, including elite Spetsnaz units, in Sochi ahead of the games.
More than anything I hope, like decent people everywhere, that Sochi will come and go without violence and bloodshed. There’s already far too much of that in the world and it can only lead to more repression – particularly in Russia, which is set to host soccer’s World Cup in four years. Besides, few events in our modern world can bring people together quite like the Olympics. It would be a terrible waste to overshadow them with the same fights we spend our blood on the rest of the time. For all the nationalism inherent in the games, for all the politicization and corruption and corporate commercialization of amateur athletics that the modern Olympics represent, there’s still a thrill in top-class athletes competing against one another with the entire world looking on. We can’t ever put all the dark stuff completely aside, but in the best moments we can set it aside for just a while and marvel at what people can accomplish when they put their minds and bodies to it.