Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days
The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)
For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.
But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.
Politics Never Sleeps
It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.
Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.
With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.
After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?
After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.
Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.
There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.
Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix
Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.
I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:
The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.
After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.
Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).
A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.
I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.
As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.
I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).
While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.
What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.
I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.
The Putin Doctrine
The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.
Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.
After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.
When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.
Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.
Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).
For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.
Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.
While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.
I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.
Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.
Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.
Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.