Like All Olympics, the Sochi Games Will Be Corrupt, Troubling … and Fabulous

Sochi flags fly inside the Olympic Park.
Sochi flags fly inside the Olympic Park.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

There will be no Pride House in Sochi. Although Pride House provided a gathering place for LGBTQ athletes, volunteers, and visitors at the Vancouver and London Olympics, with speculation swirling about security and potential political protests, the Russian Ministry of Justice was clear that Pride House was not welcome in Sochi, because it, “incites propaganda of non-traditional sexual orientation which can undermine the security of the Russian society and the state.”

There has never been a purely honorable Olympics, but at least superficially, Sochi wins gold for its troubles. The venue where snowboarder Shaun White had hoped to double his gold medal count for example, is located on “Red Hill,” so named for the Russian massacre of the Circassians in 1864.* Environmentalists, too, have been vocal about the proximity of the venues to protected lands, while Russia admitted last fall that it had broken the Zero Waste Olympic Pledge, confessing to illegal dumping and contaminated water.

Louder than cries about the environment are the headline-generating human-rights issues, from Pussy Riot’s imprisonment to appalling anti-gay legislation and the violence it has generated. Russia’s bigotry has taken a toll on the Olympic spirit, with President Vladimir Putin’s glib attempt at damage control, in which he welcomed gays to Russia providing they stay away from children, doing little to make anyone feel better about anything. According to Sochi’s mayor, sexuality should be a nonissue, because unlike everywhere else on the planet, “We do not have [gays] in our city.”

The people who demanded a boycott of Sochi can make a decent case, but they forget that the Olympics have never been a freezing of world politics, but, rather, an opportunity to cut through the horror with moments of greatness. It is critical to remember that alongside dazzling pageantry and stunning athletic spectacle, the Olympics have always provided insight, good and bad, into the world we live in. It is historically shortsighted to assume that Sochi is the most politically offensive and most economically corrupt Olympic host with the scariest terrorist potential, because that grants reprieves to an awful lot of countries and leaders (hello, Hitler!) and removes Sochi from the broad landscape that makes the Olympics the complex, horrible, elitist, and wonderful global event that sparks debate, awareness, and, sometimes, action.

Inherently contradictory, the Olympics get to transcend everything until they don’t. It is naive to think that sport is above politics, that any kind of level playing field exists, or that sport allows the world to put its problems on hold. The narrative of peaceful competition is disrupted time and again, because the Olympics are inherently political, in ways that are overt, such as the black power protest by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, and nuanced, such as Czech gymnast Vera Cáslavská lowering her gaze when the Soviet anthem played during her medal ceremonies at the same Games.

The example of Smith and Carlos is often cited in the lead-up to Sochi, as many observers wonder what athletes might do to protest Russia’s hateful homophobic policies. But Sochi deserves a more thorough context. Not since Berlin in 1936—“Hitler’s Games”—have the Olympics been such a one-man show.

Ever since the International Olympic Committee named Sochi as the 2014 host city, it has been a vanity venture designed to showcase Russian might, in the tradition of the Soviet-era mega-projects, but also to bolster the stature of Putin himself. Hitler, too, saw the Olympics as an opportunity to further legitimate his authority while promoting Aryan supremacy. The Nazis were clear that neither Jewish nor black athletes were welcome in Berlin, a position they changed once some countries, including the United States, threatened to boycott the 1936 Games. Germany camouflaged its anti-Semitism by adding fencer Helene Mayer to its roster. Mayer had won gold for Germany in 1928 but was ousted from the team because of her Jewish father. She used her token spot in Berlin to take silver, wearing a swastika and raising her right hand in a Nazi salute on the podium. Hitler also attempted to make Berlin appear more welcoming: After “relocating” the city’s gypsies to the Berlin-Marzahn camp, with Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen their final destinations, he had the range of anti-Semitic signage that typically permeated city streets removed.

Looking back, the context of the Holocaust makes the Berlin Olympics seem almost incomprehensible, and it certainly remains politically unparalleled. But flash forward 60 years to Atlanta, where the state flag, which then featured the battle symbol of the Confederacy and all its horrific baggage, flew throughout the city. In 1996, the Atlanta Task Force on the Homeless documented more than 9,000 arrests of homeless people as the city attempted to put on its best face. Just outside city limits, the world’s best archers did battle at Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the modern-day Ku Klux Klan, which features the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture, starring Confederate heroes Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis.

Four years later, Sydney dealt with the host country’s own human-rights record somewhat more successfully. Organizers incorporated a mass-mediated version of aboriginal history into the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony, with track star Cathy Freeman, whose grandmother was one of the “Stolen Generation,” lighting the cauldron. The moment was reminiscent of 1968, where, wedged in between the massacre of untold hundreds of protestors at the hands of the government of Mexican President Gustavo Diaz and the Americans’ black power gesture, hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the cauldron. A farmer’s daughter, she represented an increasingly feminist tenor, as well as the safeguarding of a rural heritage

But perhaps no recent host demonstrates the complicated flow of Olympic politics better than Beijing in 2008. To be sure, global corporate interest in China helped avert much of the world’s eyes from its human rights record. But so, too, did the Western world’s fetishized “expectation” of China, which made it possible for its human rights violations to become part and parcel of its Olympics, while hate crimes against gays in Russia are grounds for boycott. Unlike Russia, many saw Beijing as an opportunity for everyone—from the media to the IOC—to wax poetic about “saving” China. In the gorgeously produced montage that preceded the Opening Ceremony, for example, NBC positioned China’s history within the “feel good” nature of the Olympics:

The footprints in their history stretch back 5,000 years. But for the world’s greatest wall builders, makers of a forbidden city, what happens tonight is not merely a small step but a great leap. China is welcoming the world. Who will they be when this is over?

Here, the Olympics opened up this unknown entity, making past crimes not just forgiven, but forgotten, part of an ancient past. The Olympics presented an opportunity for China to be, according to NBC, “both outside time and busting every which way in a bewildering rush of transformation … they have made themselves anew.”

Such a contradiction. For China to “step into history,” it had to erase the 5,000 years deemed so important to its identity, because too much did not jibe with the Olympic spirit. The Opening Ceremony enhanced the paradox: Inarguably the most spectacular ever, its director proudly said later that only the North Koreans could have done better, justifying the tortuous conditions endured by the performers, including students, some of whom stood for the final 51-hour dress rehearsal.

The Olympics have an uncanny ability to let us play with history in this manner. China could erase all that came between its identity as a nation of “wall-builders” and its turn as Olympic host. Presumably, business as usual could resume once the Games closed. So why do the Games go on, and why should we care about Sochi? Because within the almost unspeakable circumstances that surrounded Hitler’s Olympics, we have the story of Jesse Owens and his historic four gold medals, inspirational enough to still move us today. Even the 1972 Olympics, site of the Munich massacre, the single most horrific moment of any Games, has a highlights reel: Mark Spitz’s seven golds in the pool; Lasse Viren’s double distance victory on the track; and gymnast Olga Korbut’s redemption on the balance beam and the floor.

As we look to Sochi, we cannot forget that the Olympics provide an occasion within a messy, messy world—a world that does not stop when the Games begin—for greatness and understanding to exist within contexts of trouble, horror (there was a bombing in Atlanta), and, yes, hate. Sochi is not the most offensive host of the Olympics, at least not yet, and we should not expect the world to stop for the Games, because the Games are the world.

And are we really ready to let Hitler off the hook?

Correction Feb. 6, 2014: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misstated that Shaun White could double his gold medal count at the Sochi Games. Once White pulled out of the slopestyle competition on Wednesday, this was no longer possible.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.