What’s the Meaning of the Russian Olympic Games?

February 13, 2014
Illustration: Alexander Samohvalov. Soviet athletics

The problems at the Sochi Olympics are well known, and both the international community and the Russian opposition has been quick to point them out. But for many Russians, even those upset with Putin and Sochi’s corruption, the Olympics also represent a sad lost opportunity. What should be a great event and a sign of national pride has been darkened by the decisions of Russia’s politicians.

That tension is reflected in the article by the liberal outlet, Slon, which examines the impact of the Olympics and the criticism of “Sochi Problems.” — Ed.

The Olympics have divide people in both Russia and the wider world. Some want it to succeed, no matter what; others what it to fail. The latter’s motivations are clear. So that both we and the world could see once again how rotten Putin’s regime is. It would make more sense for us to wish otherwise and for the world to sympathize and support us. Now you can see what Putin is like, he can’t get anything right, unlike the “other Russia” that would do everything better.

But here you need to understand one simple thing. That we, who live here, can differentiate between Russia and Putin. But over there they won’t bother to: for the world’s man in the street this is too delicate an instrument: Putin regime vs. non-Putin regime. The failure of the Olympics will not be a failure of Putin. We can consider it Putin’s Olympics as much as we want, but for the rest of the world, this is the Olympics of Putin, Navalny, TV Rain, Echo of Moscow radio, the readers of Slon, and the list goes on.

If all goes wrong, few people will think that this authoritarian Putin regime is unable to organize the Olympics, but a free Russia is another thing. If something sad or ugly happens they will think again: here we go, these Russians cannot make anything right except Kalashnikovs, they do everything ass-backwards, and the same will happen with their democracy. And even those who will say that aloud about Putin, would think this about everyone: we’ve known all along that they can’t do things right.

This means thousands of people who could plan to come to Russia one day with their money will not come. And, as I wrote recently on a different subject, nothing brings us closer to Europe than a few extra thousand dollars of per capita GDP.

The literary and scholarly world mainly consists of people who don’t like Russia very much. Now they berate the Olympics because they’re Putin’s. But if Yeltsin was in power, they would question whether you can hold the Olympics in the largest kleptocracy in the world with a heavy drinking, sick president in charge. A man who is a toy in the hands of oligarchs, who started a massacre in Chechnya. They would call out Navalny for his nationalism, and Prokhorov – for his illicitly acquired billions. Writers will always have questions for any sort of Russia. It’s too big, it’s always sickly, there’s too much of it, wherever you go, it’s there. And now the Olympics is there too. Another reason is that wonderful America, with its freedom in everything from sea to sea, is not loved in the wider world, and they can’t sleep.

For some reason, it seems to us that disgraceful failures, even of non-political events in Russia such as the Olympics, congresses or championships, brings us closer to a notional Europe. But there will be no attempt there to try and figure out who is responsible for what. They will just decide: these cack-handed Russians can’t do anything right, they install two toilet bowls in one room, you can’t do business with them, and that’s what we expected. If the Olympics fail it wouldn’t bring us closer to Europe. On the contrary – what use does Europe have for people who cannot get things right?

To wish on the Olympics to fail is like walking to school and wishing it to burn down: what a terrible childhood.

Handouts for the poor

To many of us, and those in our neighbourhood, it seems that the governments of civilized countries are somehow particularly interested in Putin to come out a little blackened. The blacker the better.

But in reality it is not quite so. All this stuff with Genscher and Rahr with Khodorkovsky, all these secret diplomatic channels and underground German negotiations for the release of the most famous prisoner before the Olympics, means, among other things, that Germany, the most powerful EU country, does not follow this logic of “the worse for Putin, the better for Europe”. Although from the idealists’ point of view it should be exactly the opposite. But the idealists have no dealings with Putin. As for Germany and Europe, they do. With him and with Russia.

Russia is neither the first nor the most harsh authoritarian country where the Games have ever been held. The 1968 Olympics were held in a one-party and awfully corrupt Mexico; in 1988, in an authoritarian and also corrupt South Korea, where at that time there were no elections, and the country was ruled by generals; in 2008 in Communist China, and in 1980 in Soviet Moscow. The IOC clearly does not consider itself an authority that certifies the quality of the political system.

A healthy approach was demonstrated by the Georgian delegation, which, despite everything, did come to Sochi. And they would be the first ones to have a reason not to. “This is not the Sochi Olympics, but the Olympic Games in Sochi,” it is not really a Russian event, this is an international event in Russia. And yesterday it was, for example, in Italy. And tomorrow it will be somewhere else. A train of thought, that can soothe almost any pangs of conscience.

Try reading the Russian internet, and you get an impression that this entire Olympiad was designed for someone to steal even more money. There is no doubt that they have stolen money during the Olympics, and a fair amount of it. But you can’t forget that the political leadership, that dragged the Olympics into Russia, has access to absolutely any amount of money they want regardless. So, they wanted not only money, but something else.

There are cases when countries give up on plans to host the Olympics for reasons of economy. Stockholm is a recent example. But in fact they are sought after by both developed and developing countries.

Why would London want the Olympics – a city, where every winter lonely elderly people freeze because the authorities do not have enough money to pay for heating oil? Why have it in Rio, where two million people live in slums? It’s a shame. That’s what the protesters on the streets say: “Shame!” And why did they have to build that Notre Dame de Paris at a time of abject poverty? Any myrrh can be sold and the money given to the poor. And why give each other gifts for birthday? Isn’t it better to get together, pool the money and give it all to the poor? But in the same book, which is all about grace, it is said that sometimes, in rare cases, it is possible to do otherwise.

In addition, the ideal model of the Olympics is to spend a lot of money in order to please others and attract more money than you have spent.

One’s own festivals and foreigners’

There are two types of the Olympics. Developed countries seek the Olympics to confirm that they are still doing well, they are still the vanguard of humanity, they can handle anything. When the Olympics goes to the U.S., England or France, no one is surprised: “Why the U.S., why England? Why them? Who are they, anyway?” Everything is clear to everyone. This is the first type. Everyone is just once again reminded where these places, and where the rest are.

The second type of the Olympics is held in developing countries that have made some kind of economic breakthrough and want to consolidate that success in the eyes of the rest of the world. The Olympics in the U.S. – it’s a given; Olympics in Brazil – it’s something very novel. And in India – a little too novel. These countries need to show that now they too can do anything. Russia, of course, is in this group. In the Middle Ages there was a technical concept of a masterpiece, a capolavoro: something that an apprentice must make in order to be accepted in the workshop. That’s what the Olympics are – such a masterpiece. But who is the apprentice at the door of the shop, Putin or Russia?

It’s like building skyscrapers in cities. From a functional point of view, there is no need for them at all, and in many developed countries, for example, in Western Europe they hardly ever build them. But in developing countries they are build all over the place. Just to show that they can, that they have the know-how and the money. Skyscrapers are in a way test masterpieces, modern notre-dames, the myrrh not sold for the sake of the poor, a celebration which everybody is invited to.

The Olympics, as a colleague rightly pointed out, – is like a birthday. It may or may not pay off. But it’s not likely that once the feast is over, you add up the value of the gifts and compare it to the costs. And those stupid roses, should I add them or not, they will fade anyway? And what if not everybody is invited, and not everyone feels like it’s their festival? So what? In Moscow I see other people’s festivities every day, both private and public, to which I am not invited. I don’t even attend the City Day celebration, I don’t attend all the public events, but it doesn’t mean they have to be abolished now.

And the political leaders need to understand that yes, there are quite a lot of people in the world who will never like any kind of Russia, and will never like the idea of Olympics in Russia. But it cannot always serve as an excuse. There are far more in the world who are undecided, who are interested, who won’t be disappointed to hear something positive from this Galilee. Reputation is an aggregate of many things. One cannot bolster it with just one mass celebration, albeit very well organized, not even two such events. After all, North Korea has perfected the art of mass celebration, but what’s the point? But over there they also think: they don’t like us because they envy our success.

What will really improve our image and reputation is not just an Olympiad, but an Olympiad about which people will say: Well well! Everything worked out, no one was offended, no one was hurt, nothing was stolen, and all flags were welcome.