Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Idiocy of Olympic Values

NEW YORK – It should surprise no one that the preparations for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, turned out to be wildly expensive and riddled with corruption. But the scale of excess is nonetheless staggering. The cost of building ski slopes, ice rinks, roads, halls, and stadiums for winter sports in a subtropical Black Sea resort has been well over $50 billion. Critics say that half of this was either stolen or paid as kickbacks to President Vladimir Putin’s cronies, who just happened to win the biggest contracts.

One critic, a Russian businessman named Valery Morozov, claims that officials in Putin’s own office demanded payoffs for contracts. After being told that he would “be drowned in blood,” Morozov fled the country.

But what did anyone expect in a country where big business, organized crime, and politics so often coincide? And, the grand scale aside, Russia is hardly the only country where Olympic sports, Formula One racing (also to take place later this year in Sochi), or World Cup soccer is a boon for larceny and graft.

Then there is the matter of a host country’s unconscionable laws, which can make an international sporting contest appear unseemly. Nazi Germany’s race laws were firmly in place when the 1936 Berlin Olympics were held, as were curbs on free speech in China in 2008. Russia, for its part, has adopted a ban on “homosexual propaganda” – a Putin-sponsored law that is both ludicrous and so loose that it could be used to arrest anyone deemed to be inconvenient to the authorities.

Putin, missing the point of his critics’ objections entirely, has reassured the world that gay athletes and visitors to the Winter Games will be absolutely safe, as long as they “leave the children alone.” The assumption here is that homosexuals are pedophiles at heart; to be safe in Sochi, they need only to control themselves until they return home to their decadent countries. Russia, meanwhile, will uphold decent traditional values. As the mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, informed the BBC, “we do not have [homosexuals] in our city.”

This kind of bigotry, designed to mobilize the most ignorant sections of Russian society behind the president by pandering to their prejudices, should elicit more protest than it has. More than 50 international Olympic athletes have already publicly voiced their opposition to the law. It would be good if more athletes spoke out, despite efforts by the Russian organizers to ban political statements.

But the root of the problems in Sochi lies much deeper than the corrupt practices of Putin’s friends or the hatefulness of his law on homosexual propaganda. Over and over, whether it is in Brazil or Qatar preparing for the soccer World Cup, or the Olympic Games held in oppressive and authoritarian societies, the same contradiction becomes apparent.

Even as FIFA, the world football association, or the International Olympic Committee insist that they are above politics, their grand events are politically exploited by all kinds of regimes, some of them less than savory. As a result, sport becomes political. And the more FIFA and the IOC protest their political innocence, the better it is for regimes that use international sporting events for their own ends.

That contradiction goes back to the beginning of the modern Olympic movement. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, shocked by France’s defeat in a disastrous war with Prussia in 1871, initially aimed to restore French males’ virility by encouraging organized games. Then he became more ambitious and expanded his vision to include other countries.

In a world so often torn apart by military strife, Coubertin believed that peace and international brotherhood could be achieved by reviving the ancient Greek Olympic Games. He insisted from the beginning that his games would be above politics, because politics is divisive, whereas the purpose of the games would be to bring people together.

Not everyone was pleased with this idea. Charles Maurras, leader of the deeply reactionary Action Française, saw Coubertin’s Olympics as a liberal Anglo-Saxon plot to undermine racial vigor and native pride. But he soon changed his mind after attending the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and saw that international sports created a fine opportunity for aggressive chauvinism, of which he much approved.

Yet Coubertin persisted in his dream of apolitical brotherhood. Karl Marx once described being apolitical as a form of idiocy. In ancient Greece, idiōtēs were people who were concerned only with private affairs and spurned all political life. Coubertin made his idiocy public.

And so it was that at the age of 73, a year before his death, the ailing Coubertin still managed to record a speech, broadcast in the stadium at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, about the ideals of fairness and brotherhood. Meanwhile, Hitler and his henchman were exploiting the games to raise the prestige of the Nazi Reich.

Then, too, athletes were discouraged from voicing their opinions. Protests against Nazi racism were stifled with stern Olympic lectures about the apolitical nature of sports. A few compromises were made. Signs barring Jews from public places were discreetly removed for the duration of the games. And some Jewish athletes were discreetly dropped from national teams.

Nothing has changed since then. Today, the IOC still wraps itself in the lofty mantle of apolitical Olympic idiocy, while Putin uses the Winter Games to try to add luster to his increasingly autocratic, and failing, Russian state. No doubt, the Games will provide much excitement to viewers around the world. But let us spare a thought for the homosexuals and other vulnerable citizens who will have to live under Putin’s venal and increasingly despotic rule once the party has moved on.

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    1. CommentedRik Rijs

      Have you noticed: Buruma is Always running after the facts. Each of his writings is about no-news. Read a few newspapers, looks what is most popular and writes an article about it. Never an eye opener for facts we don't know. Always forecasting the past. When will he write about what is looming and will surprise us. Say, an article about the Saoudi despots and their responsibilities in Syria, about the 40% of dirt poor and illiterate Saoudis who are fed up with their West-supported regime?

    2. CommentedShana Davis

      It is telling about the critics as well that very few have bothered to mention the villagers who are now without safe water and must walk for hours each day to the nearest public transportation to get to work because their road was cut off - as a result of infrastructure "improvements" needed for the games. There appears to be "selective" vision in terms of human rights.

    3. CommentedEdward Ponderer

      <p data-line-id="130078b99cbe44e3973d15229759af31">Mr. Buruma has written an excellent and well-researched piece. I would add that if one looks to the ancient Greece of the original Olympics, with its class of slaves and where foreigners were "barbarians," one wonders why we should expect to seek some spirit of international brotherhood in it. The emphasis on physicality, particularly on the international level rather than intra-national, often represents to show national/racial "superiority" -- the better breed of the human animal, as it were. Ego contests do not lead to peace--the best to hope for is some sublimation of aggression.</p><p data-line-id="ef538eca05be4e30bc5aca5c233eaeed">However, the issue of Gay rights in Russia is a seems whole different deal. There is a bigger picture here, and the power players are too big, too corporate, and too political, to real give a hoot about classical religious antagonism and popular prejudice towards, nor humanistic support for these rights. Simply put in coldest calculating terms, the Gay lifestyle implies a diminishing of population. Where this is advantageous there is government and media support. In the West, population decline is perceived by the elite as maintaining stability as workers become less and less needed and the calls by the half-nots for more stands as a real threat. On the other hand, Russia desperately needs population to exercise industrial and military power--and most assuredly to stave off the surrounding population threat as exemplified by the terrorists who ultimately count on a growing relative population to make use of what they hope to accomplish.</p><p data-line-id="528a1755ecbb483aae5b0996efc80bcc">But there is a common thread with the Olympics, and that is ego. The real problem is that in a globalizing world, such ego will block the flow of economic blood, overstretch the production belly while starving the leg and arm populations. In short, our true primary concern is human relations, but these will not be corrected by more egoistic displays like the Olympics, but rather the meeting of populations in round tables and the like, to try to establish some common fellowship--intelligently striving for an internalized sense of mutual responsibility. Certainly this is not accomplished at polished metal events in cities where heads are being beaten in in the back alleys out of the limelight.</p>

        CommentedRik Rijs

        Well researched article? You must be kidding. What he writes has already been written months ago in hundreds of newspapers. It's old stuff. Sounds more like plagiat.

    4. CommentedPrasanna Srinivasan

      Mr Buruma, you criticism of how Mr Putin's govt has functioned may be valid on many counts. However, there is virtually no govt that is or has been above board on many such matters. When the late Baron put together the Olympics in 1896, participating countries ran tyrannical colonial regimes often with fairly oppressive regimes for their own citizens (women's voting, racist discrimination etc) including the US. The Olympics themselves in Ancient Greece discriminated on race (only the designated states with pure bred citizens), gender (no women) etc. So while the Baron's ideals were terrific, the original weren't even close to his ideals! Post WWII the Olympics became a Cold War front - state sponsored athletes being countered by eventually professional athletes in the 80s. What is true Olympian spirit is that all these athletes from around the world, as a microcosm of ordinary people everywhere, competed fairly and developed healthy respect and friendships straddling the chasms created by politics and regimes. There is no need to drag the Olympics into this beyond that as long as the participants continue to uphold the values in practice.

        CommentedRik Rijs

        The name is "de Coubertin", not Coubertin as Buruma writes. And Buruma won't like your comment that destroys his romantic view on de Coubertin. Certainly not when adding that de Coubertin saw the Olympics and competition sports also as a way to neutralize the growing unrest in poor working lower class. It was seen by de Coubertin and others as a strategy against social upheavel. A growing problem in those days.

    5. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Buruma's "idiocy of Olympic Values" ought to be seen as the loss of the Olympic soul. When the wily Baron Pierre de Coubertin decided to revive the Olympics in 1896, he had hoped that the Games would contribute to building a peaceful and better world. For him the Olympics was not about winning but taking part, and the essential thing in life was not about conquering but fighting well. It was decreed that only amateurs should be allowed to compete. Today, it is all about showing off, breaking records and generating revenues. Money corrupts and doping is not unconscionable, as long as one can get away with impunity.
      Coubertin's original idea of an Olympics based on the three pillars of sport, art and education. By bringing sport and culture together and educating young people through sport, it was meant to promote mutual understanding, fair play and "international brotherhood".
      Like the Ancient Greeks before him, the Frenchman insisted that mind, body and spirit could be celebrated by the modern games, a notion enshrined in the Olympics charter to this day. The goal of the Olympic Movement was well displayed by the logo of the five interlinking rings, which he designed. They represent the five continents and have been a symbol of the Games since 1914.
      Before World War Two, the Olympic Games had been relatively uncontroversial. Since then politics had played a role, leaving sports in a vulnerable position. There are many who believe that sport and politics shouldn't mix. Yet much to their dismay, sport and politics do, indeed, mix. The Olympic history tells a story of boycotts, controversies and violence. By wrapping "itself in the lofty mantle of apolitical Olympic idiocy", the IOC has once again lost its sense of reality.

    6. CommentedEric Nordin

      Mr. Buruma brings up many of the issues associated with events that include nation-states at various stages of development in terms of economic and political progress - the good, the bad, and the ugly have the opportunity to participate. Although the economic benefits from such events may be negligible for the host country (i.e. South Africa and Greece), when such events are done correctly, the gains concerning infrastructure improvement as well as marketing opportunities are palpable. The impetus of such worldwide events should not be focused on a power paradigm per se, rather (and perhaps this is my idiocy) it is a chance for interaction between individuals representing diverse nation-states who are not overtly concerned with proving their government’s polices, only with winner gold – determined through a fair, objective, and agreed upon matrix.