Sochi: The Silence is Deafeningon 18 February 2014
The silence, as they say, is deafening. We expected the shrieks of protest from competitors as well as spectators. Perhaps even the crackle of light artillery as Russian police tried to quell the disturbances. The media should have been ablaze with stories of mass demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, occupations and other expressions of disapproval. But so far, all we’ve heard from Sochi is shrill BBC commentators exaggerating the importance of the Winter Olympics in the sporting calendar and the apologies of British athletes for not having done better. Sochi 2014 could have gone down in history as another Mexico 1968, or Munich 1972, both known more for political actions than sports.
In 1968, two African American athletes dramatized the struggle of blacks in post-civil rights USA with a simple, but devastating gesture of defiance. Both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were banned from sport, but their legacy is still with us. In Munich four years later eight members of the Palestinian group Black September kidnapped eleven Israeli athletes and demanded the release of 234 Palestinians who were being held in Israel. All the hostages were killed. Both incidents were condemned and the need for a separation of politics and sport was reiterated – as it still is. But, in their different ways, both cases confirmed that sport presents an almost perfect showcase for political and social issues. Sochi offered itself as an occasion. Last year, Russia introduced a law that criminalizes “homosexual propaganda,” making public displays that promote gay rights, including handholding, punishable by imprisonment. The law became an international cause célèbre. US president Barack Obama criticized the legislation on television hours before cancelling summit talks with Russia’s Premier Vladimir Putin. British actor Stephen Fry, who is openly gay, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging a boycott of the games. Putin, according to Fry, “is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did to Jews.” The statement was criticised as ridiculous by several commentators. David Cameron acknowledged Fry’s concerns but insisted, “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics."
The law is actually consistent with the retrogressive assault on civil society and political opposition since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. The jailing of the dissident female rock duo Pussy Riot was a warning shot and the release of the singers two months before the end of their sentence has been seen as a transparent attempt to take out some of the sting of world opinion prior to the Olympics. "This selective amnesty was not an act of humanism," said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova.
During the lead-up to the games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its national associations reminded competitors that they should not use the Games as a place to make "political points" and, as if to display liberal tolerance, established “public protest zones” to contain protesters where protestors could demonstrate. So why has the games been such a damp squib, politically speaking? Athletes selected to represent their nation faced a discomfiting moral question: by going to Sochi did they may appear to endorse a Russian leadership that, far from safeguarding the interests of minorities, has passed laws that legitimize prejudices entrenched in the former communist bloc? Or would they simply be toeing the IOC line and maintaining the separation of politics from sport.
One athlete, who opted to go to Sochi, is Ashley Wagner a 22-year-old figure skater. Before the games, she declared, “This is the opportunity for the Olympics to be ground-breaking.” She grumbled, “Too many people are quiet”. Wagner has made news, but not for her views on Russia’s laws. After being awarded an unexpectedly low score for her short program in the team competition, she pulled a facial expression that someone captured and posted on Facebook. It has since gone viral. The Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff spoke similarly before going to Sochi: she planned to speak out strongly against the law, but, once in competition, changed her mind. Brockhoff disclosed that she had received hate mail on twitter for her opposition to the law. Whether it was this or the prospect of the Russians’ reaction that occasioned her to rethink her stance, we don’t know. Either way, she has been silenced.
So far, it looks like the Russian authorities have got their own way and muzzled protest. Even the green activists have been contained. The organization known as the Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus had intended to stage a protest at the games. One of its followers, Evgeny Vitishko, was recently imprisoned for three years. Perhaps athletes have just been too scared – understandably so – by such a cautionary episode. After all, even the most minor symbolic protest, like wearing rainbow coloured nail varnish, could technically be treated as a “crime.”
Wagner still has time to fulfil her guarded promise: she competes in the individual women's event, starting Wednesday. So she could yet make some sort of gesture that will reverberate around the world. But increasingly, it looks like the mailed fist inside the velvet glove is influencing the athletes. Unlike Mexico and (then West) Germany, Russia has been forewarned: it could have responded by liberalizing its laws, even temporarily (as Qatar probably will when it hosts football’s World Cup finals in 2022). In the event, it decided against this, instead reasserting the full force of its medieval-style law. In other words, it has scared any prospective protestors into submission. The games are not yet over, and there is still a chance that some brave soul will speak out. The chances are diminishing though. Ask yourself: no matter how strongly you feel about human rights, if you were an athlete searching primarily for a gold medal, would you risk imprisonment?
Ellis Cashmore is the author of Tyson: Nurture of the Beast and Making Sense of Sports. He is professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, UK and writes a regular blog. He tweets @elliscashmore.
Image: Global Sports Forum CC BY-ND