Commentary Magazine


Topic: Sochi Olympics

NBC’s Cuddly Dictators

NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

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NBC has earned some well-deserved scorn for treating Soviet history, as recalled during the Olympic ceremonies, as if it were the political equivalent of New Coke: an interesting idea that flopped. But one is tempted to dismiss it not as leftists’ unwillingness to condemn their efforts to excuse mass murder, slavery, and torture in the name of forced equality but as typical media kowtowing to authoritarian thugs in the name of access.

After all, NBC aired yesterday and today its interview with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov as part of its Olympics coverage. The interview looked as though Kadyrov himself produced the segment. He is portrayed as a deeply devout leader who modernized postwar Chechnya and brought stability where there was chaos. There was the requisite question about accusations that he’s a “dictator,” quickly waved off by Kadyrov and dropped by the interviewer so the segment could move on to neighboring Dagestan, portrayed as mostly rubble where Kadyrov’s Chechnya, especially Grozny, gleams.

The strangest part of the segment was when the interviewer says Kadyrov “has aligned himself with Russia.” Does NBC think Chechnya is an independent country? It’s easy, after watching the Kadyrov interview, to just dismiss the network’s airbrushed version of Soviet history as part of its dictators-are-cuddly pathology. But I think that lets them off too easily. Nonetheless, we can turn this into something constructive–by taking them at their word. As Jonah Goldberg wrote about NBC’s whitewashing of history:

What to say of the gormless press-agent twaddle conjured up to describe the Soviet Union? In its opening video for the Olympic Games, NBC’s producers drained the thesaurus of flattering terms devoid of moral content: “The empire that ascended to affirm a colossal footprint; the revolution that birthed one of modern history’s pivotal experiments. But if politics has long shaped our sense of who they are, it’s passion that endures.”

To parse this infomercial treacle is to miss the point, for the whole idea is to luge by the truth on the frictionless skids of euphemism.

Agreed. But let’s take the “infomercial treacle” to its logical conclusion. If socialistic governance is a “pivotal experiment,” then we can all agree it’s taught us a valuable lesson, because it’s an “experiment” that failed. (Why the left needs an experiment to learn that gulags and death camps aren’t the way to go is another question entirely.) I would almost be willing to ignore the “pivotal experiment” nonsense if they actually treated it like an experiment.

For example, the violence, repression, and anti-Semitism of the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela could earn him plenty of cogent and accurate descriptors. On the day of his funeral, however, NBC’s news anchor went looking for a phrase to sum up Chavez’s legacy, and landed on “harsh critic of the U.S. who ruled for 14 years.” Proponent of a “pivotal experiment” would have been a step up from that.

Chavez’s successor isn’t an improvement, and as Ben Cohen explained here last week, Venezuela is continuing its descent into misery and chaos. AFP has the latest on Venezuela’s version of the pivotal experiment:

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday accused Washington of plotting with anti-government protesters and expelled three US diplomats in retaliation.

Maduro’s order came on the same day that fugitive opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez re-appeared and called for a mass rally on Tuesday and challenged the government to arrest him at the event.

Nearly two weeks of anti-government protests spearheaded by students have become the biggest challenge to Venezuela’s socialist rulers since the death of longtime leader Hugo Chavez in 2013.

The oil-rich country is mired in a deep economic crisis critics blame on policies that Maduro largely inherited from Chavez.

Strict controls on currency and prices have created huge bottlenecks that have fueled inflation and emptied store shelves.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the wonder of the socialist experiment. Deprivation, violence, paranoia. Goldberg is correct when he implores readers to “Imagine the controversy” if the Olympics were held in Germany and an opening ceremonial program involved a floating swastika. Would broadcasters, when eulogizing the Nazis, talk of a “pivotal experiment”? Now imagine the controversy if a Nazi leader had been described as a “harsh critic of the U.S.” as his identifying characteristic.

There is moral clarity with regard to the Nazis that there simply isn’t with regard to other socialists, as Goldberg notes. And part of that is because leftists don’t mean it even when they gloss over socialist horrors as an “experiment.” Martin Malia has written that because the Soviet project was conducted on behalf of global socialism, the way those in the West talked about Russian socialism was infused with a self-consciousness about the way it reflected on socialism everywhere.

“It is only by taking the Soviets at their ideological word, treating their socialist utopia with literal-minded seriousness, that we can grasp the tragedy to which it led,” Malia wrote. That advice can be broadened: we should take not just socialists but their enablers, excusers, and whitewashers at their word.

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Sochi’s a Disaster. Does It Matter?

In Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, Russia clocks in at number 127: tied with Pakistan but more corrupt than Egypt and Belarus. It comes in at 148 on Reporters Without Borders’s press freedom rankings. The decision, then, to hold the Winter Olympics in Russia was always going to be something of a gamble, making the question as to whether the site would be ready on time anyone’s guess.

Because of the secrecy, there was no telling what athletes, reporters, and guests would find when they finally arrived in Sochi for the games, which begin this weekend. But it’s doubtful they expected the disaster Sochi has become. Every day brings new stories, some bizarre and some quite serious, all of them likely to give Vladimir Putin and the heads of the International Olympic Committee indigestion.

Incidentally, they can try to calm that indigestion with yogurt, but Russia is currently banning the popular Chobani Greek yogurt from the games, prompting the intervention of Senator Chuck Schumer, who had to appeal to Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, declaring, “There is simply no time to waste in getting our Olympic athletes a nutritious and delicious food.”

None of this, amazingly enough, is a joke. And neither are the reports of wild dogs greeting hotel guests or of reporters being told not to ingest the toxic (and almost fluorescent) tap water. Concerns and complaints about one of the event’s courses caused American snowboarding star Shaun White to withdraw from one of the events. Reading that story on CBS News’s website, I couldn’t help noticing another nearby headline from its Sochi coverage: “Sochi Olympics: Ground zero for avalanches?”

No speculation, apparently, is beyond the realm of possibility: let your imagination roam free like the hotel dogs. In Sochi, anything can happen. The question looming over all this is: does it matter that the Sochi Olympics have been a comedy of errors thus far?

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In Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, Russia clocks in at number 127: tied with Pakistan but more corrupt than Egypt and Belarus. It comes in at 148 on Reporters Without Borders’s press freedom rankings. The decision, then, to hold the Winter Olympics in Russia was always going to be something of a gamble, making the question as to whether the site would be ready on time anyone’s guess.

Because of the secrecy, there was no telling what athletes, reporters, and guests would find when they finally arrived in Sochi for the games, which begin this weekend. But it’s doubtful they expected the disaster Sochi has become. Every day brings new stories, some bizarre and some quite serious, all of them likely to give Vladimir Putin and the heads of the International Olympic Committee indigestion.

Incidentally, they can try to calm that indigestion with yogurt, but Russia is currently banning the popular Chobani Greek yogurt from the games, prompting the intervention of Senator Chuck Schumer, who had to appeal to Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, declaring, “There is simply no time to waste in getting our Olympic athletes a nutritious and delicious food.”

None of this, amazingly enough, is a joke. And neither are the reports of wild dogs greeting hotel guests or of reporters being told not to ingest the toxic (and almost fluorescent) tap water. Concerns and complaints about one of the event’s courses caused American snowboarding star Shaun White to withdraw from one of the events. Reading that story on CBS News’s website, I couldn’t help noticing another nearby headline from its Sochi coverage: “Sochi Olympics: Ground zero for avalanches?”

No speculation, apparently, is beyond the realm of possibility: let your imagination roam free like the hotel dogs. In Sochi, anything can happen. The question looming over all this is: does it matter that the Sochi Olympics have been a comedy of errors thus far?

The answer has to do with one aspect of the games, and it’s not yogurt. At one point late this afternoon the top two headlines in the New York Times’s World section were “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone” and, next to it, “Terrorism and Tension for Sochi, Not Sports and Joy.”

And here we get to the serious part. The latter story, by Juliet Macur, was particularly bleak. After asking whether one of the tense issues related to the games had reached its boiling point, Macur wrote:

We’ll find out soon. At the same time, athletes will be winning medals. But will anyone notice?

Never before has the pre-Olympic chatter been less about the athletes or the sports. And never before has the conversation leading to the Games been so grim: suicide bombers have struck Volgograd, about 400 miles north of Sochi, three times since the fall — including strikes in December that killed at least 34 people.

Global security experts have called this the most dangerous Games ever, based on the location of the competitions, the seriousness of the threats (including one from the head of a terrorist organization who last summer lifted a moratorium on civilian targets), and the capability of terrorist groups to carry out their plans (several in that region already have).

Macur followed that with the kind of rebuke to the IOC that other authoritarian-hosted Olympics don’t usually earn:

“It was a very, very risky decision for the Olympic committee” to hold the Olympics in Sochi, said Andrew C. Kuchins, the director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a security think tank in Washington. He basically said what is on the minds of many people headed to the Games, and the many people — including athletes’ families and friends — who were too scared to attend.

What was the International Olympic Committee thinking?

In the end, few will remember whether the yogurt got to American athletes in time (though I’m sure Chuck Schumer will remind us), and most of the tap water does not, in fact, glow in the dark. As embarrassing as those are, they won’t be the metric by which these games will be judged, because the larger worry is whether the Russians can keep the athletes and spectators safe.

On CNN this evening, Wolf Blitzer asked Mitt Romney about granting the Olympics to Sochi: “Was that a mistake that the International Olympic Committee made?” It’s both too late and too early to answer that question. But the frequency with which it’s being asked on the eve of the games is an indication that a great many in the international community already think the answer is yes.

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Doku Umarov: Dead or Alive?

Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

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Major international events hosted by Putin’s Russia have generally been a time of heightened security as the Russian leadership’s drive for prestige has been matched by that of Caucasus-based domestic terrorists, eager to humiliate Putin and draw worldwide attention to their cause. That was the case when Russia hosted the 2006 meeting of the G-8 countries, and it appears to be true as well of the Sochi Olympics, due to begin next month.

A terrorist attack in Volgograd in December set off worries about security at the Olympics. As I wrote last week, Russia’s expulsion of American journalist David Satter might have been prompted by his warning that the Volgograd attack meant attendees in Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.” In taking credit for the Volgograd attack, Islamist militants added a message to the authorities: “If you hold the Olympics, you’ll get a present from us for all the Muslim blood that’s been spilled.” Even before the video was released, the New York Times reports, American officials went public with their security concerns:

Tensions rose Sunday over security preparations ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, as several congressional leaders expressed concern about Russia’s willingness to share information about terrorist threats, while President Vladimir V. Putin asserted that he would “do whatever it takes” to protect the thousands of visitors arriving soon for the Games. …

Extremists affiliated with Doku Umarov, a former Chechen nationalist leader who now heads a broad Muslim separatist movement and advocates global jihad, have also vowed to disrupt the Games.

Umarov’s name is of particular interest. Before the 2006 G-8 meeting, infamous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev reportedly initiated plans for an attack. Those plans were disrupted and led to Basayev’s death, turning his hopes to humiliate Putin on the world stage into a public-relations coup for Putin. In its report on Basayev’s death, the Associated Press included a somber warning from journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed soon after:

“If you look at the situation in the North Caucasus, not just in Chechnya, the ranks of the rebel resistance are constantly being replenished,” she said.

Another rebel leader, Doku Umarov, pledged last month that rebels would step up their attacks against Russian forces.

Umarov’s stock continued to rise, declaring himself leader of the breakaway Islamist network the Caucasus Emirate. Yet now, in an eerie echo of 2006, Russian authorities say Umarov has been killed. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assesses the evidence here. RFERL notes that one strike against the claim is that it would be—again, like in 2006—a major propaganda coup for the Russian authorities, who would presumably seek to play up the news and perhaps even offer proof.

Another strike against the claim is that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has made a habit of pronouncing Umarov dead. Nonetheless, there is evidence backing the claims of Umarov’s death.

Declaring Chechen terrorist leaders’ elimination is something of a national pastime for the Russian security services. They are not always being intentionally misleading, however. A case in point is the former terrorist Salman Raduyev. In its obituary for Raduyev, who died in a Russian prison camp in 2002, Reuters recalled:

Raduyev had survived several assassination attempts. He kept his face, scarred by the numerous attempts on his life, nearly covered by a beard and sunglasses.

Once, when he was widely believed to have been killed, he reappeared with his features so altered that reporters identified him only by his voice.

Raduyev was nicknamed “Titanic” after talk that his face had been reconstructed in a foreign hospital with titanium implants.

That Reuters obituary hints at another reason Putin might be desperate to tamp down talk of security in Sochi. It calls to mind a time when such stories were published in American newspapers—in this case the L.A. Times—and the exploits and fates of Chechen guerrillas were of wider interest than in recent years.

The Chechen “cause” has of course morphed over the years into an Islamist terror center on the ruins of what was a genuine nationalistic liberation/independence movement. Its integration into the global war on terror has sapped it of its mainstream media allure just when, paradoxically, its expanded role in a global movement made it more relevant to consumers of that media. It’s easy to understand, then, why Putin would trumpet the elimination of Umarov—and also why the lack of official fanfare surrounding the announcement has left it open to some skepticism.

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Why Did Russia Expel a U.S. Journalist?

The collapse of Vladimir Putin’s expert image management continues apace. Perhaps the proliferation of smartphones and social media, combined with the rise of a younger generation of Russians with no memory of their country before Gorbachev, made it inevitable. But it has not been without its unforced errors. And Putin’s expulsion of journalist and author David Satter, who writes regularly for National Review Online and was working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appears to be the latest example.

I wrote in May of last year that Putin’s paranoia had gotten the best of him, and was taking increasingly self-defeating steps to crack down on the opposition. One such move was targeting the one independent polling outfit. Putin usually gets relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that these ratings were coming from a respected outlet was hugely beneficial to Putin. Threatening its very existence was not just wrong, but also impractical.

Yet now a new pattern is emerging: Putin keeps targeting precisely the groups who can roust international sympathy on their behalf. The first of these was Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has generally received a pass from the Western left for his expansionist instincts, but he put himself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as far as they were concerned. Suddenly, he had crossed a line among many commentators who apparently hadn’t noticed how often his professed enemies ended up dead or his consistent support for the Iranian nuclear program.

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The collapse of Vladimir Putin’s expert image management continues apace. Perhaps the proliferation of smartphones and social media, combined with the rise of a younger generation of Russians with no memory of their country before Gorbachev, made it inevitable. But it has not been without its unforced errors. And Putin’s expulsion of journalist and author David Satter, who writes regularly for National Review Online and was working with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, appears to be the latest example.

I wrote in May of last year that Putin’s paranoia had gotten the best of him, and was taking increasingly self-defeating steps to crack down on the opposition. One such move was targeting the one independent polling outfit. Putin usually gets relatively high approval ratings, and the fact that these ratings were coming from a respected outlet was hugely beneficial to Putin. Threatening its very existence was not just wrong, but also impractical.

Yet now a new pattern is emerging: Putin keeps targeting precisely the groups who can roust international sympathy on their behalf. The first of these was Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Putin has generally received a pass from the Western left for his expansionist instincts, but he put himself on the wrong side of the Arab Spring as far as they were concerned. Suddenly, he had crossed a line among many commentators who apparently hadn’t noticed how often his professed enemies ended up dead or his consistent support for the Iranian nuclear program.

Then when an all-female performance art/punk rock outfit pranced around a Moscow church, Putin overreacted, having them charged with hooliganism and put in jail after a show trial. Their stunt was obnoxious, but Putin made them heroes in the music world. Suddenly shows were being held in their honor abroad and Madonna was performing with their band name written on her skin.

Putin’s support for Russian anti-gay laws set him against the human-rights community and the Western press. And now he is going after the Western press itself. On his website, Satter goes step by step through the process of his expulsion. After giving him the run-around and delaying his paperwork, Satter finally got a meeting with senior diplomat Alexei Gruby:

9.     On December 25, I called Gruby to arrange a meeting. He told me that he had a statement to read to me. It said: “The competent organs have decided that your presence on the territory of the Russian Federation is undesirable. Your application for entry into Russia is denied.”

10.  On December 26, the U.S. Embassy issued a note of protest and the fact of the visa denial was confirmed. Attempts for three weeks to learn the reason for the refusal were unsuccessful. The Foreign Ministry stated that “according to Russian law, the reasons for refusals are not divulged.”

11.  On January 14, 2013, the Foreign Ministry, ignoring its earlier claim about the demands of Russian law, issued a statement saying that I was banned from Russia for five years because I had overstayed my visa by five days. They did not mention that they were responsible for not providing the promised invitation that would have made it possible to obtain a visa on November 22 and, in that way, avoid any violation. There is also no mention of the fact that a number was issued on December 23, a month after the incident by the Foreign Ministry for a new invitation to be taken to the Russian Embassy in Kiev.

12.  The real reason for my refusal was the one given by Alexei Gruby in Kiev. I was expelled from the country at the demand of the security services. This is an ominous precedent for all journalists and for freedom of speech in Russia.

The fact that the security services–the “competent organs,” in the Russian government’s hilariously Yury Dombrovsky-esque phrasing–wanted Satter out and were willing to say so is noteworthy. Why stir up more trouble and negative press heading into the Sochi Olympics? That might actually have something to do with it, suspects CNN:

In December, after suicide bombers killed more than 30 people in the Russian city of Volgograd, Satter wrote for CNN.com that visitors to the upcoming and highly touted Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi “are walking into what effectively is a war zone.”

Perhaps Putin and the Competent Organs (a great name for a band, incidentally, if Putin ever wants to get serious about his music) thought Satter’s work was more damaging to his precious Olympics than having him booted and banned for five years.

Each of these PR disasters, of course, could have been the result of such cost-benefit analysis. Defending the church from the punk rockers put the religious authorities back in thrall to the state. And helping Assad defeat his rebellion elbowed the U.S. further out of influence in the Middle East while also sending a signal to his own protesters back in Moscow. But however Putin might justify his behavior, it comes at the cost of proving his critics right.

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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?

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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.

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