The Politics of Sports

By Noort Bakx

With a spectacular opening event last Friday (although the last Olympics circle failing to open messed it up a bit, leading to some great responses) The Olympics in Sochi finally kicked off. After months, maybe years of controversy and issues surrounding the event, question is whether sports will now finally take over as the dominant factor surrounding the games. Cause that is what it’s all about, no?

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No. Whether you like it or not, the Olympics are not just about sports, on the contrary, they have always gone hand in hand with politics. Almost logically maybe, if you host an event between different nations, the everyday struggles between those nations aren’t put aside over the course of that event. More so, the event itself provides the perfect stage for showcasing political issues, whether by nations, groups or individuals. This article from The Guardian sums up the main political events from the last 100 years quite nicely. Berlin in 1936 and London in 1948 were characterized by post- and pre-war issues, as well as tension during the Cold War being in place during some of the games to come. Rome in 1960, comprising of racial issues, South-Africa got banned due to the apartheid regime and the first black African became an Olympic champion. And we can find more recent examples; the games in China and South-Africa have been criticized due to human rights issues and financial concerns. There have been boycotts, terrorist attacks, protests and deliberate losses just not to face certain opponents.

So coming to Sochi 2014, nothing new is going on. Political issues and controversies have been part of the event and perhaps that is not a bad thing.  When there is global attention, time and space for the whole world to watch, and this great amount of nations get together, there should be focus on social and political circumstances. Attention to gay rights, addressing the gay-bashing and anti-LGBT laws and possible condemnation of Russia’s approach, yes. But within the context of the Olympics, the question is in which form, and to what extent?

For convenience sake, let’s take a look at my own country, The Netherlands. With several major nations having different delegations showing up (Obama, his wife and vice-president Biden are no shows, as are Hollande and Merkel) the Dutch delegation has been discussed by media and public as being very ‘heavy’. Meaning we send the important people, and all of them. With the prime-minister, King and Queen, and Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, there was no one more important or significant that we could have possibly forgot to add to the gang. Several Dutch politicians, including the European Commissioner condemned the decision, as did some prominent gay figures in The Netherlands. According to Rutte, our prime-minister, the argument behind the full delegation is partly based on the good trade relations. Relations Rutte does not want to harm, which shows again, political intentions are part of the game. But, he adds: these relations make it possible to have a dialogue, address the gay rights issues and other civil rights subjects, ‘’The strength of the Netherlands lies in finding that balance between political concerns, trade and human rights’’. The concerns about civil and gay rights would definitely be addressed by this delegation. A party member of the prime-minister added: ‘’Rutte will talk to Putin for the fourth time about gay rights, which is more than all of his European colleagues together’’. On Friday, before the opening ceremony, Putin and Rutte met. In a conversation with a ‘broad agenda’, human rights issues were one of the topics on the agenda.

Russian President Putin is welcomed by Dutch Prime Minister Rutte at his arrival at the Maritime Museum

And what did it lead to? Dutch news media report very little real substance, ‘’A good talk’’. Rutte mentioned the gay law, other human rights problems, next to foreign policy and economic issues. One correspondent tells us that Putin’s reaction to the gay rights issue was ‘’it’s now about sports’’, which marked the end of that part of the conversation. So successful approach to fighting gay discrimination? It seems the friendly relations were taken on with a little more priority than anything else. Noteworthy was a following event on Sunday. Ireen Wüst, winner of the golden medal on the 3000 meter ice-skating, got a personal visit and congratulation from Putin. Wüst is bisexual, and one of the few openly admitted LGBT athletes these games, is what is told on international media. Was Putin actually showing some goodwill to all the LBGT’s out there? According to the Russian media, Putin’s visit marked a thank you to the Netherlands for the delegation present in Sochi. Sports, how we wish it was just as simple as that..

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