Each year it gets harder to watch the Olympics. It is not so much the over-produced opening and closing ceremonies or the hypocritical celebration of the “international brotherhood of sports” (complete with national teams, country-by-country medal counts and suspiciously biased skating judges). It is because watching the Olympics first in China and soon in Sochi makes one a participant and even a cheerleader for brutal regimes.
We will be told the Games will reaffirm Russia’s place as a great, respected power on the world stage and will constitute a diplomatic triumph for its dictator. Maybe not so much.
We should pray no terrorist incident occurs (understanding it is the closest the Games will have come to a jihadi enclave), but it is hard to root for a successful Games that will add to the dictator’s credit.
Putin also wanted the Olympiad to be the capstone of his effectively 14 years in power, of Russia’s “rising from its knees,” leaving behind the trauma of the Soviet collapse. In a recent interview with foreign journalists, he also said that Sochi would allow Russians to “pull ourselves together” after the “bloody events” in the Caucasus — referring to two Chechen wars, the second of which rocketed Putin, just appointed prime minister, to national popularity in the fall of 1999. In the same interview he highlighted this as a “psychological aspect” of the Games.
If Putin is as lucky as he has been through most of his time in power, he may pull off the Games without mishaps, and the Russians may swallow the price tag — which is more, by the way, than the country spent on education last year and 80 percent of what it spent on health care. Yet with several rainy days in the mountains, a collapsed building or ski lift, a public protest that gets out of hand, or, worst of all, a suicide bomber who makes it through a shield of more than 37,000 police officers, at least 10,000 Ministry of Internal Affairs troops and unspecified numbers of elite paratroopers and Federal Security Service agents, then the Games could become an instance of national shame and soul-searching: Was Sochi worth it?
So do we take that all in and then flip on the games, buy the products of the Olympic sponsors and simply be grateful the Games are not (yet) hosted by North Korea? There really is another choice for individuals deeply disturbed by the spectacle of Vladimir Putin’s self-congratulatory extravaganza.
AEI’s president Arthur Brooks put it this way: “If Americans object to the statist abuse, the treatment of gays, and believe that international prestige for Putin is objectionable, they can cast a vote with their TVs.”
There may be a certain schadenfreude (or whatever the Russian equivalent is) in watching the Sochi games play out. As David Kramer of Freedom House told me, “Given that the facilities are not finished, the construction shoddy, the weather unpredictable, and the threat of terrorism looming, I think these Olympics could be a real embarrassment for Putin.” (He adds, “People who do watch should at least be aware that they are taking place in a country with a nasty leader who abuses his own people’s human rights and supports those (Assad) who do so elsewhere.”)
As for me, I admire the athletes whose skill and dedication are inspirational. I love sports, although college basketball will more than make up for missing luge, curling and even balletic, gravity-defying skating. But I can’t quite justify adding my eyeballs to the audience and thereby to the advertising and publicity bonanza that winds up fortifying Putin’s image and solidifying his dictatorship.
We shouldn’t profit from others’ wrongs and we sure shouldn’t help them profit. The Olympic dollars flowing into Putin’s coffers is blood money in a way — riches paid to the murderers of Sergei Magnitsky and to the oppressors of religious minorities, gays and democracy advocates who now will ensure nary a protestor or a stray dog disrupts the “Olympic spirit.” (Where is PETA when you need them?) If we do nothing else, at least we can deny Putin some glory and instead join in solidarity with the oppressed in Russia and try to impress upon the IOC bureaucrats that if they insist on giving the Games to noxious regimes, they and their corporate sponsors won’t get the big audiences they crave. It seems the least we can do.