When that fifth Olympic ring failed to open up during the opening ceremony in Sochi last Friday, I joked to a friend that someone was going to pay dearly for that mistake. The next day, a hoax story spread on the Internet that claimed the person in charge of that portion of the program was found dead. Though the story wasn’t true (as explained by Buzzfeed), it certainly fed a negative, western media-driven narrative that this year’s Winter Olympics are destined to be a disaster.
How many of you considered not watching the Sochi games? Tell us in the poll after the jump:
I had tinkered with the idea of not watching after months of hearing about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-LGBT policies. (Here’s a round-up by PolicyMic.) Something about the host country spending about $50 billion didn’t seem right, either. The Russian band Pussy Riot — heroes to many after they were imprisoned for singing anti-government songs — toured the U.S. last week to encourage Americans to boycott Putin’s spectacle (Here’s the CBS News report). Then came the tweets from some of the first journalists to arrive in the host city. Social media circles went nuts over images of dirty water, tainted food, shoddily constructed accommodations and photos of a shirtless Putin in hotel rooms.
Despite all that bad juju, I tuned in last Friday night to watch some of the opening ceremony and the competitions that have followed. The sight of those athletes walking into the arena and waving their countries’ flags stirred up strong feelings of pride. What other non-violent, non-war international event do Americans pay as much attention to? This temporary show of unity is what makes the Olympics so special.
Every few years, these athletes make incredible sacrifices to reach the top of their sport. Their preparation makes for thrilling television. Of course, there’s no denying the underlying political themes.
Sure, it was a little annoying to see Putin in the stands last Sunday with a smug look on his face as he watched Russia’s figure skaters take home a team gold medal. But did you see 15-year-old skating phenom Julia Lipnitskaia spin, jump and flex her way to international stardom? Her performances so far have been brilliant. No one can deny her talent — or hold her nationality against her. Good is good.
As three-time Olympian Greg Louganis argues so effectively in this Wednesday guest column opposing a boycott of the games, engagement with the Russians is critical not because of the discriminatory policies in place there today, but because showing that America’s delegation supports equality could change the lives of LGBT residents who will remain in Sochi long after the games have ended.
Earlier this week, the first openly bisexual athlete to win a gold medal at the games, Dutch speed skater Ireen Wust, told reporters she got a hug from Putin after her win. Who knows if that will make a difference in the long term for Russian policies. Wust’s triumph is certainly a poignant moment reminiscent of African-American track star Jesse Owens’ four gold medal-winning performances at the 1936 Berlin games, which was hosted and attended by Adolf Hitler.
Check out this fascinating video clip:
I’m hoping for more moments like that in Sochi, in which the Olympic spirit shines brighter than politics.