Differing narratives surround Sochi games

The Sochi Olympics ended on Sunday, Feb. 23. The controversy, however, is far from over. From Russia’s strong stance on “non-traditional sexual ...

Mar 1, 2014

The Sochi Olympics ended on Sunday, Feb. 23. The controversy, however, is far from over. From Russia’s strong stance on “non-traditional sexual relationships” to the multiple perceived security threats, this winter’s Olympics have bought Russia the attention of the world media — but not for the reasons that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have preferred.
According to the Weekly Mirror, even Putin’s earliest attempts to halt the politicization of the Sochi Olympics were thwarted by the LGBT propaganda law and the subsequent press that it generated.
“Despite Putin saying that the Olympics were meant to ‘depoliticize the most pressing international issues,’ the majority of questions he had to answer dealt with politics, with much of the interview time being devoted to dispelling fears that LGBT visitors to Sochi would face any discrimination,” the Weekly Mirror reported.
In response, Putin argued in favor of an important distinction: the difference between criminalizing propaganda and prosecuting individuals for their sexual orientation. He noted that the propaganda law also applies to physical and sexual child abuse and that Western media focused on the “non-traditional relationship” section, using existing biases to shape Russia’s public image.
“I would like to draw your attention to the fact that in Russia, as opposed to one third of the world’s countries, there is no criminal liability for homosexuality. 70 countries in the world have criminal liability for homosexuality, and seven countries out of these 70 enforce the death penalty for homosexuality. And what does that mean? Does it mean that we should cancel all major sport events in those countries?” said Putin in an interview with multiple world news agencies.
There have also been public calls for deliberate politicization of the Olympics in light of Russia’s longstanding political and economic alliance with Syria. Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou suggested that the Sochi Games are the perfect opportunity to revive the ancient Greek tradition of the Olympic Truce. In Ancient Greece, the Olympics were held in a state of truce to ensure that the host city was not attacked and that spectators could travel to and from the region without fear of conflict.
The Truce is still embodied in the modern-day Olympics and has lead to very tangible peace accords. South and North Korean delegations walked together under the same flag for the first time in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“As president of the Socialist International and someone who has fought to revive the Olympic Truce, I, too have called for an absolute ceasefire in Syria -- to be respected by all factions -- during the Olympic Games in Sochi,” explained Papandreou.
In an open letter to President Putin, the former U.S. Secretary of State and the former Prime Minister of Iceland, among others, called for Russia to allow a truce in order to funnel humanitarian aid into Syria.
“If the Olympic Games showcases the best of humanity, Syria showcases the worst. The most expensive games in history will take place so close to the worst humanitarian crisis of our times,” the letter argues, calling attention to the fact that the city of Sochi is located less than 700 miles from the Syrian border.
In a recent Forbes opinion article Geoffrey Kabat expressed a similar sentiment. He spoke of the cognitive dissonance embodied by governments and viewers of the 2014 Olympics, arguing that Sochi and Syria were inextricably connected.
“Day after day for the past 10 days, two realities have been unfolding virtually side-by-side with no apparent acknowledgement of a connection between them … a mere 700 miles away [from the Sochi], President Bashar al-Assad of Syria continues his campaign of systematic terror, torture and starvation against his own people,” he wrote.
Russia and Syria have enjoyed a long-standing alliance for a variety of economic and ideological reasons. Russia is one of Syria’s most important arms suppliers, and it leases a naval port in the Syrian city of Tartous, its only military base providing direct access to the Mediterranean. According to CNN, Russia also aims to block U.S intervention attempts, citing Iraq as an example of its failed mediation in the past.
 On Feb. 22, Russia voted in unison with the UN Security Council for the first time since the conflict in Syria began, allowing a resolution on the humanitarian crisis. A Huffington Post article questioned whether the spotlight effect of the Olympics may have pressured Putin into allowing this relief aid into Syria.
Putin’s take on the policy changes, however, is simpler. He does not see the games having an influence on Russia’s political sphere.
“I would very much like sports not to be marred by politics,” Putin said.
A similar sentiment was echoed by two NYU Abu Dhabi students in an earlier Gazelle article. Both expressed frustration with the way Western media portrayed the Olympics and simply wanted spectators to appreciate Russia’s culture and natural beauty.
It remains to be seen how these Olympics will be remembered; it seems unlikely that the world will see a neat split between Russia’s sporting prowess and its political mores. A third round of Geneva negotiations on Syria has been has been planned, and the outcome may prove a more concrete proxy for the complicated relations between Russia and Syria.
Tessa Ayson is features editor. Email her at
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