This is not exactly a newsflash in my house, where, before he left for college, my son had to teach me how to turn on the TV. The thing is, I really don’t want to watch the Olympics, even though I spent many of my happier childhood hours watching figure skating on the black-and-white.
It’s not the athletes’ fault. They are doing their best, given everything. But this Olympics, for all the wrong but obvious reasons, seems to be more about the place it’s being held than the people who are competing. This is the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. It belongs to Sochi.
And therein lies my problem.
Why would I want to watch an endless infomercial featuring people who we as a nation don’t actually trust very much? I’m not faulting the journalists. They are doing their best. But the story is what it is.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is bigger than any halfpipe medal winner. The gap between appearance and reality in Russia, the underlying regional tensions, the guessing games about how much it cost and whether the economy can or can’t bear it (the modern equivalent of the ‘80s arms race) — all of this has much higher stakes than the events. This is about Russia’s role in the world. The fact that the rioting in Kiev is unfolding alongside the slalom in Sochi — both on television screens around the world — only underscores the obvious.
Politics and the Olympics? Yes. Of course. There is always politics, including the politics of the decision to pretend there isn’t. The questions are: Whose? To what end? For what good?
The Chinese had a whiff of cleaner air for their Olympics. You always paint the fences on the parade route. In the best of circumstances, the community ends up with “marvelous” facilities built for the international events. For that reason, the Olympic games have become a positive symbol for supporting local athletics, as they did in the wake of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when many of the facilities, including those at the University of Southern California, were opened to the community (a fact much noted eight years later, when riots that surrounded the USC campus geographically left the university untouched).
The problem with the Sochi Olympics is that, this being Putin, the politics are inescapable, and the stakes are real and significant. You can’t just laugh it off the way you can so much of politics. It all matters. And this makes the use of the Olympics as propaganda all the more troubling.
I was driving home the other night, listening to an interview with the Russian equivalent of Mitt Romney or Peter Ueberroth — the guy who pulled the Sochi Olympics together. The interviewer tried every way he politely could, but it didn’t matter: This guy was going to do his spiel, and that was that. He was not going to tell you whether it was $52 billion, which tends to mean more. He earnestly urged that politics and sports remain separate, and this only moments before pointing out Putin’s enthusiastic presence at the games and proudly anointing the event as proof of Russia’s ability to do what has never been done before in terms of building so much so fast. Russia is back. It built a military complex on the back of a needy nation, and now it’s managed to build an Olympic edifice, underneath which is a simmering cauldron.
I certainly hope and pray things go well for the rest of the Olympics. I hope Americans win many medals. But even more, I hope the fact that the eyes of the world are on Russia ends up saving lives in Ukraine. If it must be political, let it be to some good end.