BLACKMON: An apology to Sochi

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Last Friday, I secretly wanted nothing more than the opening ceremony of the 2014 Olympic Games to collapse into a complete and utter disaster.

BlackmonTIt’s a feeling that, at first, seemed difficult to place. I’ve always avidly followed the Olympics, evidenced by my insatiable appetite for everything from the gold medal hockey game to 3 a.m. curling matches, and I normally enjoy a spectacular showing for the opening ceremony. But the American narrative surrounding Sochi in the weeks prior had tainted my usual Olympic thrill.

From the country’s overt persecution of gay citizens to the mass slaughter of stray dogs in preparation for the Games, Russia’s string of abuses have prompted activists from around the world to question the International Olympic Committee’s selection of Sochi as the host of this year’s Winter Games. Joining that sentiment, I too balked at celebrating a country that had so aggressively mistreated its own citizens.

So in a key moment of the opening ceremonies, when five points of light were supposed to expand into five prominent Olympic rings as one of the most recognizable symbols of international cooperation, one ring unexpectedly malfunctioned. The result was a sad configuration of four interwoven rings and one wilted star off in the far right corner. In this moment meant to serve as a testament to the rebirth of Russia, the country had fallen short.

And as I watched the spectacle unfold, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction: Russia had failed; President Vladimir Putin had failed; proponents of a viciously anti-gay society had failed.

Looking back, my initial reaction was nothing short of disgusting.

In my haste to feel secure in my own moral superiority, I had actively rooted for Russia’s failure on a highly publicized world stage. I delighted in mocking everything from their unorthodox toilets to the Russian Police Choir’s quirky rendition of “Get Lucky,” justifying my behavior with the moral outrage I expressed for the country’s political regime. And judging by the tide of anti-Russian sentiment on social media, I certainly wasn’t alone.

Americans nationwide, it seemed, loved to hate Russia in a way they simply hadn’t for Beijing, Vancouver or London. Even government officials like United States Senators Tammy Baldwin and Susan Collins (a rare bipartisan crew) criticized the IOC for selecting Sochi in the first place.

To be sure, there is an appropriate time to criticize certain actions taken by the Russian government. In fact, the human rights violations occurring in Russia under Putin’s watch are both reprehensible and inexcusable. No citizens in any country should have to live in fear of their own government.

But in the midst of our sardonic tweets and posts, many Americans crossed a line from criticizing the acts of a government to attacking an entire people. Such a reaction is particularly unfortunate because in focusing so narrowly on the country’s faults, we missed out on the opening ceremony’s rich display of Russian culture and history told through the lens of the Russian people.

Russians spent $51 billion in taxpayer money to cut through international politics for one moment and tell the international community a story, and America simply laughed.

If we’re not careful, we risk soiling the spirit of the Olympics in the name of our own political agenda — a tragically shortsighted strategy that forgets how easily the international community could flip the script on the United States in future years. After all, our own government seems to have no qualms about spying on both its own citizens and international leaders or using “enhanced interrogation techniques” in Guantanamo Bay.

We should neither forgive nor forget the abuses carried out by the Russian government. But as painful as it may seem, we must put aside our politics for now and take the time to celebrate an age-old athletic tradition, and compete with one another unconditionally.

It’s a truly inspiring idea we had all those decades ago — every two years, no matter how much hate we harbor, the international community takes less than three weeks off from the constant deluge of negative news to highlight the best the world has to offer.

I almost let myself ruin that tradition, and for that, I apologize.

Tyler Blackmon is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at tyler.blackmon@yale.edu .

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