Olympics: Earth’s most political apolitical event

SOCHI, Russia – Each time an Olympics approaches, the ideal is articulated once more: The true spirit of the games, those who oversee them say, brings humanity together to promote amity and athletic excellence. It is most certainly not a place for the affairs of nations and vested interests to play out on a global stage.

“Olympics is not about politics. It’s about the sport, fair play and humanity,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee, said last week, echoing his predecessors. The new president of the International Olympic Committee, Germany’s Thomas Bach, was more nuanced, saying before the games began that his organization must be “politically neutral without being apolitical.”

And yet …

In Sochi this week, politics percolates everywhere, which is not unusual. It has lurked at the margins of Olympic Games going back at least to the moment in 1936 in Berlin when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a white supremacist, watched Jesse Owens, a black American, take gold in the 100-meter sprint.

The Olympics, you might say, are the planet’s most political apolitical event.

Consider Friday night’s appearance by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s USA House – and wearing a Team USA pin on his lapel, no less. It was entirely good-natured, but it couldn’t have been more political.

On the surface, it was an Olympics host leader cheerfully glad-handing guests. But below the bonhomie, it was hard not to conjure a stew of words and memories that evoked old suspicions: Cold War, “We will bury you,” spies, the Eastern Bloc, NATO, detente, nuclear proliferation. And new ones, too: Edward Snowden.

Putin is only the most obvious example. To watch the Olympics – and to look beyond the marvelous athletic performances and the uncounted, often unexpected friendships it helps build – is to see a human anthill of scripts and vested interests playing themselves out.

“There is this absolute insistence that there be no politics. I think they have to say that,” says Curt Hamakawa, a U.S. Olympic Committee official for 16 years.

“But the fact of the matter is, that is not true. And it comes across as being a bit hypocritical,” says Hamakawa, now an associate professor of sport management at Western New England University in Massachusetts. “Government and sport is pretty much intertwined for most countries. I don’t know that they can escape from it.”

Several Olympics of the past half century have been particularly politically charged. Tokyo’s hosting of the 1964 Summer Games showcased Japan’s return to the global stage after World War II. In 1972, Palestinian attackers killed 11 Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village in Munich.

And of course there were the boycott years – 1976, 1980 and 1984 – when entire nations (including the United States and the Soviet Union) stayed away because rivals either were there or were hosting.

Front and center this time around is the disconnect between Russia’s strict attitude toward gays and voices around the world that take issue with its approach. Despite some predictions that gay athletes or their supporters might turn Olympic spectacles into political ones, it hadn’t happened as of Saturday.

Then there are the leaders who stay away – and sometimes make comments about the games from afar. President Barack Obama’s decision not to come, for one, has been speculated about by many. Was it because of scheduling, geopolitics, or both?

At the games, Olympic politics can take many forms. There is a flap about athletes’ yogurt – fueled by politics in the form of a low-level customs dispute between Russia and the United States.

There is the fact that Taiwan must compete as “Chinese Taipei” because of a six-decade schism with mainland China. There are faces upon faces painted with national flags – signs of exuberance, yes, but also human political metaphors in miniature.

There is Ukraine, gripped with unrest as it tries to secure an Olympic-city bid for 2022. “The Olympic sports, the Olympics ideas, the Olympic movement, this is above any politics and Ukraine will resolve all of its political problems and all of its political issues,” its acting deputy prime minister, Oleksandr Vilkul, said in Sochi a few days ago.