The real story at Sochi

My mother was kind of an athletic star growing up. She won quite a few countrywide track and field titles in high school and eventually played basketball for her college team. But despite my mom’s nascent athletic stardom, my grandmother never understood the appeal of sports. I suppose the spectacle of people running around on a court and chasing after a ball while wearing color-coordinated clothing seemed silly. She once asked my mother, “If they all want it so badly, why not just give everyone a ball?”

Despite her limited understanding of sports, I think my grandmother had a point. Sports, and the associated fandom, are kind of strange if you really think about it. We willingly give people money so they can perform a range of physical tasks, but only if they abide by some arbitrary rules agreed upon beforehand. Fans, after investing so many financial and mental resources into their favorite team or athlete, sometimes do incredibly stupid or irrational things. For example, when the Vancouver Canucks lost the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, Canucks fans decided the only thing left to do was to try to burn down the city in a massive riot.

In some of my previous columns, I argued that sports ultimately are entertainment businesses designed to, well, entertain people. Though sports can provide deep bonding experiences for the most dissimilar strangers, attaching too much value and significance to sports can skew our perspective of what truly matters in society. That explains our tolerance of misbehaving athletes and coaches until their actions can no longer be ignored.

On a broader scale, our collective obsession with grand athletic competitions sometimes make all of us look like idiots. Take the Sochi Olympics, for example. Russia spent over $50 billion to make Sochi the international spotlight for two weeks and then promptly ruined the resulting goodwill by invading Ukraine, thus making Sochi one of the most expensive P.R. campaign failures in history.

Despite Vladimir Putin’s folly, the rest of the world should feel even worse for its failure to use Sochi as a platform to press for actual changes in Russia. Before the Olympics began, people were concerned with Russia’s poor human rights track record and its borderline bullying behavior towards its neighbors. Ironically, an event meant to symbolize peace took place in a country noted for its aggressiveness.

But instead of covering the controversial issues that would have had an impact long after the Olympics ended, the media decided to focus the vast majority of its attention on the event itself. Given our insatiable appetite for sports stories, however, we can’t blame the media. The International Olympic Committee, for the sake of keeping up the appearance of political neutrality, remained largely silent about the widespread LGBT discrimination in Russia.

Worst of all, given the recent bloodshed in Ukraine, our attempt to elevate the Olympics into some sort of transcendental experience that unites the world seems downright naïve. Of course, trying to make the Olympics a political spectacle would undermine its ability to bring people together as well as its ability to stimulate global social dialogue. However, this does not mean that we should avoid having political and controversial discussions during international athletic events. Sports offer an escape from the harsh realities of the world, but we should not let athletic entertainment overshadow our more important obligations.

There are some major global sports events coming up, with Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup and Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup. Controversial issues will likely arise again as these spectacles approach, such as government clearing of urban slums in Brazil, mistreatment of migrant workers in Qatar and general corruption behind the IOC and FIFA selection processes. I hope we won’t avoid having the necessary conversations down the road.

Athletes sometimes become the epitome of our image of the classical Greek hero, capable of astounding physical feats. But they should not be our role models. Let me end my column with the story of Australian sprinter and silver medalist Peter Norman. In the 1968 Summer Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously joined in a black power salute while on the medal stand. But few people realize that Norman, who’s white, wore a badge on the same stand to protest racial segregation in countries like the U.S. and South Africa. In fact, Norman was the one who suggested Smith and Carlos split a single pair of black gloves after Carlos left his at the Olympic Village, thus directly contributing to a now iconic image.

After the Olympics, Norman was ostracized by the Australian officials and media and never made another appearance in the Olympics despite meeting the qualification standards multiple times in 1971 and 1972. Norman’s career ended prematurely and he never became a household name like some of his brethren who chose to be silent. But he deserves our respect and praise far more than an athlete who merely excels at the physical level. But as Dr. Henry Jones remarked in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” in the race against evil and injustice, there is no silver medal for finishing second.

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