Perhaps, the most striking paradox of the London Olympic Games is that in spite of the much-discussed commercialization they leave much space for politics. For Britain, the Games bear political connotations due to subtle allusions of its imperial legacy of which sports and the English language are a core component. “Most countries will play British sports or sports that were derived from British sports,” a journalist from The New York Times opined. The Britons themselves make political conclusions from comparing the 2012 Olympics with the Games of 1948 held in London – widely known as the “post-war austerity games.” Today, the British government is proud of being able to spend huge amounts of money on sports. This leads London to a political (and public relations) conclusion that in spite of the EU financial crisis, the British economy is investment-friendly and has good financial prospects for the years to come – though the lasting effects of London’s spending will remain an outstanding matter of domestic political contestation.
Skeptical voices abound: “at times of political or economic crisis, the British have always turned to spectacles,” a commentator in the International Herald Tribune ironically remarked. In fact, the political linkage between success in sports and the strength of national identity is widely articulated globally. Comparisons of London with Beijing, where the previous summer Olympics took place with tons of Chinese grandeur, only underpin political tones in the global Olympic discourse. Or take, for example, the words of Ana Palacio, the former Spanish foreign minister:
“The Spanish victories in the World and European football championships were not incidental… They demonstrate how awarding can be skills implemented through identification with a common goal” (Die Welt, July 27).
As in the case of Britain, sport success is directly associated with national identity and the ability to achieve desired results internationally. The London Olympiad is the first in history when each of the 205 National Olympic Committees has sent male and female athletes, and the leading sports nation – the United States – has more women than men. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has called the 2012 Games “Die Frauen-Show.” This definitely sets a political milestone for the future. Then, a number of less expected occurrences came to the fore.
The media widely commented on U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s mild criticism of the way the organizers tackled the whole gamut of security issues surrounding the Games. And an incident with the South Korean flag mistakenly displayed at the pre-game presentation of the North Korean football team added some pepper to the mixture of sports and politics. In fact, this Korean episode clearly illustrates how sensitive national sport identities might be. Ukrainian and Georgian Foreign Ministries, for example, protested against the mishandling of their athletes’ data: the country of birth of some of them were indicated as Russia, even though they were born in Ukraine or Abkhazia.
Yet the politicization of the Games reached its peak (so far) in debates about the attendance of some political figures: Alexander Lukashenko, who is the President not only of Belarus, but also of his country’s Olympic Committee, had to stay home since he is banned from traveling to the EU, along with some other dictators like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Lukashenko responded to the travel prohibition by accusing the organizers of the Games as “tainting the Olympiad with politicization” and by reiterating his old mantra that “Belarus remains an island of free thinking and independence” in Europe. This funny reaction changed nothing in the visa policy of the UK government who, as a journalist from Berliner Zeitung assumed, intended to turn the Olympic Games into a dictator-free-zone. Yet this did not apply to such personalities as Islam Karimov from Uzbekistan or Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov from Turkmenistan, who were ranked by Human Rights Watch as in the company of the worst dictators of the world.
As for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, he declined to attend the opening ceremony but showed up at a judo competition. I will leave to conspirologists to judge whether Putin’s move reflects his tacit confirmation of the crisis in Russian–British relations. At any rate, Putin’s selective participation in Olympic diplomacy in London seems a bit strange for the chief executive of a country that, in two years, will host the next Games – the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Hopefully he understands the challenges that Russia faces in the preparation for the 2014 Olympiad: the whole world will scrutinize how effective the Russian government can be in tackling security challenges that are rampant across the North Caucasus, and how responsive the Russian government is to the environmental and cultural demands of local communities residing in this region. Of course, the most controversial leaders of neighboring countries, like Alexander Lukashenko and Viktor Yanukovich, will be among the most-welcomed guests at the Sochi Games. But if Russia wishes to use the Olympics to raise its international profile, it needs a different type of openness.
As my colleague Mikhail Alexseev suggested a year ago at a PONARS Eurasia conference, it is hypothetic, but not unthinkable, that the Sochi Olympiad will form an appropriate climate for making substantial political moves, like Russia’s conciliation with Georgia, or forging common Russia–EU policies toward Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I would add a number of other possible bold moves to this list, including pooling Russia’s and NATO’s resources in the Black Sea for preventing terrorist acts and the temporary suspension of visa requirements for travelers holding Olympic tickets. Each of these steps would certainly demonstrate the most positive meaning of politicization within the Olympic context.
Andrey Makarychev is a Guest Professor at the Free University of Berlin, blogging for PONARS Eurasia on the Russia-EU neighborhood.