In a perfect world, the Winter Olympics would be a vehicle to create world harmony.
In the real world, politics, terrorism threats and human rights controversies have taken a good portion of the spotlight at the competition in Sochi, Russia.
Athletes are competing in a volatile political region under tight security, while fears about potential attacks swirl.
“The result is a very nervous world watching an Olympic celebration that could be a disaster,” said Jeffrey Segrave, a professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore College and an expert on Olympic politics. “You worry about lone-wolf terrorists. You worry about organized crime and cyber attacks. But the two greatest threats really come from Islamic insurgency in that Caucasus region — a very virulent, rampant, anti-Russian jihadist insurgency that has actually threatened to blow up these Olympic Games on repeated occasions. That is terrifying.”
Biathlete Curt Schreiner of Day, who participated
in the Olympics in 1988, 1992 and 1994, said the threats of violence are a reflection of the world we live in.
“There’s always somebody in the world that’s unhappy that is going to use a big event like this as a way to further their cause,” he said during an interview in late January.
Instead of resorting to terrorist acts, Schreiner suggested countries looking for recognition should focus on developing their own Olympic athletes.
“Instead of blowing somebody up, send a team. They’ll get recognition, and the kind of recognition that they want, by doing something like that,” he reasoned.
Olympic athletes aren’t just world-class competitors, but political icons, Segrave noted.
“What happens is countries and communities and nation-states pour all of their hopes and dreams and aspirations onto an athlete, so they become something bigger and larger than themselves,” he explained. “And that’s the tragedy, when the political component of athletics and the Olympics destroys the personal hopes and goals and dreams of the individual athlete.”
He recalled the United States’ boycott of the 1980 summer games in Moscow, which was instituted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the ensuing boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles by 14 Eastern Bloc countries and allies.
Five-time Olympic speedskater Amy Peterson Peck of Schuylerville voiced her unhappiness with the effect that political issues and the fears often spurred by them have on the Olympics.
“You have people who have trained their entire lives for this moment and you just hope that that [fear] doesn’t kind of linger over things and that they are able to just focus on the Olympics,” she said in a late January interview. “I think back and I think between almost every Olympic games that we’ve had for the past however many years, there has been kind of that threat lingering over on some level.”
Segrave said many people have asked him why the games were awarded to Sochi, a site embroiled in controversy. The location was determined seven years in advance, selected by way of a bidding process. Cities create proposals that are voted on by the International Olympic Committee.
Money plays a major part in the selection process, he noted.
“The sponsors of the International Olympic Committee, these are the Coca-Colas, the Samsungs, the McDonald’s, these multi-giant international corporations, they are very highly motivated to gain access into new marketplaces in the world, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the games went to Beijing, that they’re going to Pyeongchang, that they went to Sochi, that they’re going to Rio de Janeiro. This is opening up markets that corporations just dream of having,” he said.
International sports federations, a critical component of the Olympic organization, want to spread their sports to new venues for financial and marketing reasons as well, he noted.
“Then there are, of course, the host countries, for whom expenditure on the Olympics has a very easily sold upside,” he added. “We’re going to put this city on the world map, we’re going to enhance tourism, we’re going to enhance our infrastructure, we are going to modernize, we’re going to upgrade transportation, accommodations, communications, and we’re going to get a global audience, in front of which we can advertise ourselves.”
Russia’s persecution of the LGBT community has resulted in some bad press for the Olympics’ host country.
Three sponsors of the U.S. Olympic Committee have spoken out against the Russian law that makes it illegal to speak in favor of homosexual relationships or to distribute material on gay rights. Google addressed the controversy with subtlety, including winter athletes and rainbow colors in its search-page logo. Gay rights activists who waved rainbow-colored flags Friday on Moscow’s Red Square and protested in St. Petersburg were arrested.
Locally, there has been some buzz about Russia’s discrimination against the LGBT community, said Chad Putman, board president of Schenectady Pride, a group that celebrates community diversity, community engagement and the contributions made to the city by the LGBT community.
“I have seen comments on Facebook and through social media that say folks are planning on not watching the Olympics,” he noted. “But I guess I’m most impressed with kind of the outpouring of support all the way up to the leadership of the nation, including the president, with regards to not sending high-ranking-level officials to the opening ceremonies as a way of making a statement about Russia’s anti-LGBT policies and then also making a deliberate effort to send representatives of the LGBT community, who are professional athletes and who have competed in the Olympics and have been successful as representatives of the United States. I think it’s an extremely powerful message. It’s heartwarming to see that.”
Although concerned about the persecution in Russia, Putman noted that there are still plenty of human rights issues to deal with right here at home.
“The state Legislature, specifically the Senate, has yet to pass an agenda, which would extend basic human rights protections to transgender individuals or gender-nonconforming folks in New York state, so although we want to see Russia make progress and not openly discriminate against LGBT individuals, the United States, including New York state, has some work to do as well,” he said.