Russia Sports For Freedom

Controversy has rocked the planning of the 2014 Winter Olympics since the announcement of its host location in Sochi, Russia. Unfortunately the controversy isn’t related to the athletic nature of the games, but instead regarding the drab and depressing limitation of political freedom by Russian policymakers.

The Olympic Games are meant to promote harmony and peace among the international community, but are often targeted by protestors as a stage to gain world-wide attention. For instance, continued Buddhist dissent in China became widely publicized during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Such disruptions bode badly for the image of the host country, and draw away from the happier distractions of the events.

Protests are an essential tool in raising public awareness and influencing policy, but government officials are understandably averse to the disturbance of internationally staged events, which also reflect the image of the host nation. Because of that, policies regarding protestors are severe and sometimes brutal.

So naturally, in an ideal world for event planners, protests would not occur.  Last August, in a banal attempt to create such a utopia, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned public protests for the duration of the Olympic Games. Thankfully, this complete rejection of public expression did not go unnoticed and led to indignation and criticism by international human rights groups. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) weakly voiced concerns as well, ultimately showing deference to the host country.

Eventually the Russian government caved in to international pressure, allowing for contained protests in a local park, given preapproval by authorities. Protestors will be allowed to gather in a designated zone, roughly 9 miles from the nearest Olympic site. But it is unlikely that the preapproval process will be convenient.

In previous attempts to remove international scrutiny, Russia unexpectedly released high-profile prisoners, mostly human rights protestors, from incarceration.

Does this sound like the beginnings of a true democracy? Sadly, it is anything but. Although event planners may veil such arrangements as anti-terrorism and security measures, the truth is that Russia is simply circumventing international scrutiny from domestic issues.

The Russian government is already condemned by many Olympic athletes, for their blatant criminalization of homosexuality, as well as the arrests of numerous human rights protesters (remember the female punk band, Pussy Riot?). Through these new measures, Russia quells criticism, while maintaining control of the outcome.

In fact, this wouldn’t be the first time a country pretended to support political freedom for the duration of the Olympic Games. The Chinese government issued three protest zones for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, yet not a single request to an organize a rally was granted, and all applicants were subsequently intimidated or arrested by local authorities.

Russia will follow in the steps of China, and simply brush off allegations of human rights violations. If anything, Russia’s announcement of an authorized protest zone is a temporary solution to appease those urging for and seeking political freedom in a country that claims to govern by democratic ideals.

A better discussion is not whether Russia is actually evolving into a democracy and not just claiming to be, but why the International Olympic Committee is not protecting human rights at an international event. After all, an excerpt from their stated mission says their role is to “encourage and support the promotion of ethics and good governance in sport.”

While some claim that the Olympic Games in Russia bring about positive values, nothing constructive will come about, without a determined effort by the IOC to uphold them and the international community to serve as the watchdog.

 

Cyrus Oloumi is a fourth-year business economics and French double-major. He can be reached at coloumi@uci.edu