Commentary Magazine


Putin’s Reminder: Politics Trumps Sports

The anger over Russia’s law banning pro-gay “propaganda” is growing as more athletes and fans have expressed their outrage about the prospect of the authoritarian government using next year’s Winter Olympics as a platform to sanitize Vladimir Putin’s regime. While there doesn’t appear to be much support for a boycott of the Sochi games, there’s little question that many athletes and a lot of the media in attendance will be looking to push the envelope on this prohibition and to embarrass their tyrannical hosts as much as they can, as today’s New York Times report on the latest twist in the controversy shows. In that effort, I wish them luck. More than that, I’m glad that by offending an extremely influential group within Western culture and the media, the Russians have reminded us of a truth that is often submerged amid all the hype that is showered onto international sporting events: politics should trump sports.

My only question is why this lesson was ignored when virtually no one paid attention to China’s egregious and massive human rights abuses during the 2008 Summer Olympics? And why didn’t anyone in the soccer universe (the world’s most popular sport) scream bloody murder when Qatar, which like other Gulf states is actually far more repressive than Putin’s Russia, was awarded the 2022 World Cup?

I love sports, but prefer the kind that doesn’t mix up nationalism with games. But most Americans, like sports fans everywhere, like our televised sports and we don’t like inconvenient human rights causes interfering with the fun. So perhaps many of us sympathized with Russian gold medal-winning pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva’s plea that “politics” not interfere with the pageantry and the competition at Sochi. But in fact, the willingness of gays to speak up and not be put off by the desire of those who profit from sports to insulate their business from political consideration should set an example that should not be limited to Sochi.

The fact is international sports competitions are political almost by definition. The Olympics in particular are often used as PR photo ops for the host governments because the nationalism and the flag waving will always be used by regimes that wish to be viewed in a more positive light. The 1936 Berlin Olympics is the classic example. While we in the United States tend to only remember it for Jesse Owens’s triumph that disproved the Nazi theories about Aryan superiority, those games were actually an even bigger triumph for Adolf Hitler. The prestige and power of his government was enhanced by the world coming to his capital. It was one of many factors that led him to believe that the world would accept anything he did to groups he despised, like Jews, without causing much trouble–and he was right about that. That was also true 72 years later when the Chinese proved that you could be the world’s biggest human rights offender and hear hardly a peep of protest from the West when they ran their Olympics extravaganza in 2008.

Thus, I think the prospect of gay protesters disrupting the Games is an encouraging development. Rather than be sidelined by the impulse to not let such causes interfere with the bread and circuses, activists should do everything possible to promote their cause.

Governments that engage in massive human rights abuses should not be, as they have been many times in the past, allowed to use sports to burnish their image. But it shouldn’t stop there. The same activists and others should be prepared to do the same in the Gulf states that discriminate against Jews as well as gays when the soccer jamboree is held there in 2022, an event that will garner even more viewers. If not, we have a right to ask why.