By Neil deMause
The sports-calendar gods have truly blessed us this year. Super Bowl goers have only now just barely managed to escape the clutches of New Jersey Transit, yet it's already time to gear up for the Sochi Winter Olympics, or as they're known around our house, The 17 Days of Curling. Even before the events themselves have begun, Sochi is turning into a hot mess of a media sideshow, thanks to the hilarity that is Russian governance or lack thereof: The caviar highway. The mayor who doesn't believe gay people exist. The unfinished hotels with the dangerous face water.
Some of these issues, of course, are more hilarious than others. (And the "do not flush toilet paper" sign is undoubtedly more hilarious if it's not your bathroom it's hanging in.) Where spending a record-shattering $51 billion to bring the Winter Olympics to a warm-weather resort town is the kind of ridiculous that gets the world shaking its collective head at Russian folly and corruption, the possibility that gay athletes could be in peril, with even anyone wearing a rainbow pin risking being hauled off in chains, is harder to treat as a laughing matter, especially for an international event that's supposed to represent principles of peace and tolerance.
Supposed to, anyway. Because as University of Toronto sociologist Helen Jefferson Lenskyj points out, Olympics that aren't beset by funding and human-rights scandals have become more the exception than the rule these days. In Sydney in 2000, it was Australia's horrible treatment of its indigenous peoples, and threats to deal in force with aboriginal protestors who planned demonstrations during the games. In Beijing in 2008, it was China's record of repressing all dissent, not to mention its forced relocation of perhaps 1.5 million people to make way for all those shiny new Olympic facilities. For that matter, Atlanta officials displaced an estimated 36,000 people to clear the way for the 1996 Games, while arresting homeless people to ensure that they wouldn't sully their city's TV image -- something that's become a bit of a tradition for Olympic host cities.
Lenskyj, who's written several books on the Olympics, has her latest, Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows, out on Friday. "The punchline," she says, "is that the IOC and Putin's Russia deserve each other." She provides a long list of parallels: "Dodgy governance structures, fraudulent voting processes, the enforced lesbian and gay invisibility, the reliance on religious or pseudoreligious rhetoric to justify their actions." Not to mention, she adds, "the reliance on the old argument that we should keep politics out of sports -- that sport is apolitical, that sport is pure. All of that mythology is very potent, and the IOC manages it to suppress protest just as Putin does."
It's a bit hard to remember, but the International Olympic Committee was once the butt of just as many corruption jokes as Russia is today, around about the time it was revealed that IOC members were trading votes for cash bribes and prostitutes. (Salt Lake City won the 2002 Winter Olympics after offering such trinkets as paying the college tuition of an IOC voter; Amsterdam fell a couple of hookers short of Barcelona in 1992.)
Olympics organizers made a big deal of reforming their bidding practices after those revelations, but Lenskyj says it's only led to more under-the-table shenanigans. Three years ago, she notes, Vancouver Olympic Committee head John Furlong wrote in his memoirs that he'd agreed to build support for a Russian Winter Olympics bid if Russian officials backed his city's bid for the 2010 Winter Games. A subsequent IOC investigation disappeared without a trace, and when Sochi ran into (and out of) hot water, there was Furlong defending the Russian organizers in the media, with no mention of his previous quid pro quo.
It's a level of chutzpah that is common among Olympic organizers, says Lenskyj. "The IOC has dug itself deeper into this hole of blatantly showing to the world that they don't give a damn about the human rights situation in a country that they choose to host the Games," she says. "When Thomas Bach got elected [IOC] president last year, he got a phone call from [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, who he knows quite well, to congratulate him. And when he got off the phone, Bach said to the journalists, 'That was Putin,' and then said laughingly, 'We didn't talk about the anti-gay law.' They have a sense of entitlement that is breathtaking."
The time-honored way of reining in this kind of behavior is through public outcry, and Sochi has certainly had that in spades, from calls for a boycott to so many elected leaders bailing out of attending the games that the highest-ranking official at the opening ceremonies may be this guy. Unfortunately, public pressure only seems likely to backfire with Putin, who has used criticism of his anti-gay policies to firm up his support at home by accusing critics of being supporters of Western decadence. "He's in a win-win situation," says Lenskyj. "If there were a boycott, he could look good because he could make the argument that the West is going to hell in a handbasket. If there's no boycott, he looks like a really strong man, which is his favorite image."
As for shaming the IOC itself, Lenskyj isn't too hopeful, either, given past history. Eventually, she says, the committee will probably stumble into a location whose human-rights issues are too embarrassing to sweep under the rug. That could be someplace like Qatar, though FIFA (whose president Sepp Blatter is on the IOC) has managed to survive its selection of a nation with a long history of abuses against women, gays, and migrant workers to host the 2022 World Cup, despite its own voting scandal and problems with officials joking that gay sports tourist can avoid arrest if they just keep it in their pants.
The problem, ultimately, is that no matter how many people decry Russia's homophobic laws or its terrifying toilets, it's not likely to stop them from delivering the one thing that the IOC and Olympic host cities want far more than public approval, and that's television ratings. It's an odd cognitive dissonance that's seemingly becoming more common across the sports world in particular: Even as people are incredibly cynical about the workings of the IOC and their political allies, they remain faithful to the ideals of the games. It's something we see in pro sports as well -- owners and players are all greedy bastards, now help me get my purple face paint on -- not to mention the greater identity of patriotic politics, where blind allegiance to your country has had no problem going hand-in-hand with blind hatred of the people running your country.
The optimistic way of looking at this is that sports fans want to cling to faith in their institutions, even as they're proven to be corrupt and to cover for the worst kinds of affronts to human rights and dignity. Either that, or we just want an escape from our daily lives so badly that we'll take anything, no matter how ugly its underbelly, to distract us. Nobody wants to live in a world where the Olympics stand for shady kickbacks and political repression, not when there are freestyle skiers to goggle at. And that's just what they're counting on.
Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.