Olympics search for footing amid shifting sands
It was only a matter of days from the moment the Olympic flame was extinguished in Beijing that the sounds of war descended upon Ukraine. We watched for weeks as Vladimir Putin amassed troops on the Ukrainian border, debating the ethics of letting Russian skating phenom Kamila Valiyeva compete despite a positive drug test last December, and wondering when, if, the IOC would ever give out those medals from the team figure skating competition.
The Olympics have been treading quicksand for some time now, and not just because COVID-19 forced an unprecedented postponement of Tokyo 2020 or turned Beijing 2022 into a veritable sports prison with its unyielding “closed loop” policies to keep the virus out and the competition in. Rather, from doping scandals, perhaps especially that of the Russian sports machine, to the increasing spotlight on rampant sexual misconduct in women’s sports, with USA gymnastics at the center, the idea that “the games must go on” – most famously articulated by the fervent racist and anti-Semitic Avery Brundage, the Chicago businessman who helmed the International Olympic Committee through the massacre of the Israeli team at the Munich Games in 1972 – seems less able to muscle the competition through global tempests in the name of sport.
With Beijing serving as host for the second time in only a handful of years, the first city to hold both the winter and summer version of the Olympics, political interest loomed large with these Winter Games. But China’s human rights record was but one of the items on the political menu. Despite the ongoing ban on the Russian team for systemic doping violations, Putin sat proudly in the stands during Opening Ceremony, rising to his feet to cheer the Russian athletes competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, or ROC – a concession ostensibly made to punish the country but not the athletes for failing to compete cleanly.
While current IOC president Thomas Bach appealed to the leaders of the world to “observe your commitment” to the Olympic truce, his request fell on the deaf ears of Putin, who has used the Olympics as a warmup in the past, invading Georgia in 2008 just as the Olympics in Beijing got started, and grabbing Crimea just after the Closing Ceremony of the Winter Games in Sochi.
The athletes, as Bach always pushes, deserve better, truly. We should be remembering the breathtaking Chinese gold in pairs skating, the intensity of Nick Baumgartner, 40-years-old, begging 36-year-old Lindsay Jacobellis to get down the hill first in mixed snowboard cross, and the sheer exhaustion and elation of Jessie Diggins as she collapsed on the finish line of the women’s 30km cross-country race, the silver medal hers.
But the athletes compete within this very political context, their national colors on their backs, their flags wrapped around their shoulders (well, except for the Russians, who aren’t allowed, kinda sorta, as long as we ignore those flags on their sleeves in the Opening Ceremony). The ancient Greeks saw the Olympics as a way to interrupt the narrative of war – the concept of ekecheiria, or truce, at the center, imploring athletes and spectators to lay down their arms in the name of athletic competition.
A few weeks of competition, of course, did little to bring peace to the warring Greek states, just as a friendly hug between Russian and Ukrainian skiers in Beijing did little to stop the Russian tanks from rolling along the Ukrainian border, or the bombs from falling from the sky. The Olympics, for sure, remain one of the greatest of our global gatherings. But what they mean, in this moment, we cannot be sure.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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