The Olympics: A Tool For Autocrats Since 1936

Another Olympics, another repressive state using the Olympics to boost its international reputation and gain legitimacy at home.

This time it’s Russia and the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.

When will it sink in that repression is not a regrettable anomaly in some host nations, but a central feature of the Olympic package? That the Olympic movement feeds, legitimises, and even encourages political authoritarianism?

Here’s the rap sheet for Sochi. The 2012 presidential election, which put Vladimir Putin back in the Russian presidency, was surrounded by allegations of fraud. His government met the resulting mass protest movements with a suite of legislation designed to suppress dissent, free speech, and free assembly.

The prosecution of members of the band Pussy Riot was just the most highly publicised attack on political and religious dissent in the last few years.

Amnesty International estimates that 4,000 people across Russia were detained for protesting in 2012 alone. International non-government organisations engaging, however vaguely, in “political activity” are required to register as “foreign agents” and are subject to routine harassment. Foreign journalists are intimidated and sometimes banned.

Then, of course, there’s Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, which makes it illegal to suggest that gay relationships and heterosexual relationships are in any way equal.

All this is on top of the usual forced evictions, construction and development corruption, and extra-legal environmental damage that is par for the course for any Olympics held outside the very richest countries. Putin promised a “zero waste” Olympics as part of its bid back in 2007; apparently the Olympics committee is unable to detect outrageous nonsense when they hear it.

Indeed, it was clear during 2007 that Putin’s Russia was an illiberal Russia. This chronology by FreedomHouse shows how political repression has increased since Putin’s first election to the presidency in 2000.

But by now there is a well-established Olympic media cycle. Negative stories are aired before the games commence. The opening ceremony is 10 days away. The next week and a half will, no doubt, be full of exposures of Putin’s political perfidy, about the environmental and economic cost of the Sochi Olympics, warnings that Sochi’s infrastructure isn’t up to speed, fears about terrorism, and revelations of waste and mismanagement.

But those tales subside the moment the opening ceremony wraps up. Unless there is a major political, logistical, or security crisis, the international coverage of the Sochi games will immediately focus on the sport.

Athletic performances will wash away the political stench. Putin and his government will be the beneficiaries. They will be photographed with sports stars and visiting celebrities. They will feed off the praise of organisers and fans and athletes, for whom there is no world outside the Olympic villages and stadiums.

All the pre-Games bad press will be chalked up to anti-Russian sentiment.

That’s the Olympic calculus – repressive regimes have to tolerate a few months of quiet and steady negativity, which is more than adequately compensated by a fortnight of blisteringly positive press.

Western complaints about Russia’s anti-gay law will not take the shine off Putin’s Olympics.

Defenders of the Olympics make much of the one historical instance where the games bought genuine, welcome political change: Seoul, in 1988. South Korea’s democratisation dates roughly from that time.

But this is not much of a defence. The country was at the time of its bid in 1980 controlled by a repressive military dictatorship, who wanted the Olympics to legitimise its rule.

As this 2004 paper makes clear, at best, the Olympics can be seen as a catalyst, rather than a cause, of South Korea’s democratisation. There were many factors pressuring the country towards change.

And anyway, the International Olympic Committee had no problem being used for authoritarian propaganda. From the Olympic movement’s perspective, it was just a happy accident that South Korean democracy emerged from South Korean dictatorship.

There’s simply no reason to believe the Olympic movement cares about political freedom, and many reasons to believe it is happy to be a tool of the world’s worst regimes.

The 2007 assessment of the Sochi bid (here, page 9) is a masterpiece of amoral detachment. In its assessment of Russian politics, the only factor it feels worth relating is the overwhelming political support for holding the games, as if democratic debate about the virtues of the Olympics would be would be a negative.

It’s true that the repression in Russia is now less than the last time Russia hosted the games in Moscow in 1980. Or than that of Berlin in 1936, or even Beijing in 2008.

But it’s no coincidence that the three most brutal totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century have each been granted an opportunity to host the Olympics.

Or that many other undemocratic nations have used the games to build legitimacy at home and aboard.

The Olympics movement simply doesn’t care that it – and all the athletes who compete in their events – is being used as pawns in an authoritarian political game.