“Action Expresses Priorities”: The Sochi Olympics and a Culture of Complicity

November 5, 2013
By

Russian Olympics

The upcoming Sochi Olympics are already shrouded in violence and inequality.  It is the Olympics after all, so the political, social, and cultural entanglements between the world’s largest sporting spectacle and the broader social realities (injustices) are nothing new. Yet, with the Olympics just over the horizon, 2014 will spotlight the ongoing oppression facing GLBTQ communities and their allies in Russia (and beyond).

As with U.S. outrage over racism within European fútbol or “hooliganism” in the world’s most popular game, the national response to Russian state-sanctioned homophobia has been wrapped in a narrative of American exceptionalism. More than the rightful condemnation, the calls for a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics speak to a level of holier-than-thou exceptionalism that locates evil, hatred, and violence elsewhere, all while seeing goodness, love, and equality in the hearts and minds of people in the United States.

Don’t get me wrong: the anti-GLBTQ violence in Russia mandates protest and widespread censure. The Sochi Olympics are an opportune moment, but not because of a dehistoricized and naïve understanding of the Olympics as the apolitical celebration of the world’s humanity. Nor is Sochi an important space of intervention because homophobia and inequality run counter to the Olympic charter and its call for nations to put aside differences in a celebration of friendly athletic competition.  I know these messages are what NBC and the International Olympic Committee are selling, but I ain’t buying.

At the core, the Olympics are about Western hegemony – a celebration of colonization and imperialism. Christina Ting Kwauk notes,

According to John Bale and Mike Cronin, modern sport is a legacy of colonialism. It is a product of the implantation of sport by Western colonizers into societies all over the globe in an effort to civilize the “savages” in the image of the Englishman.  Bale and Cronin argue that although “modern sport may serve to promote the modern post-colonial state, they initially served as a form of colonial social control.” Through sport, colonialists could first train the body and then capture the mind.

White supremacy, misogyny, and homophobia, not too mention the violence and destructive logics of capitalism, have always been core to colonial projects and thus are central to understanding the history of the Olympics.  The anti-GLBTQ violence is thus not out of step with the history of the games.  To deny this broader history is a mistake and a shortcoming given the complicity of everyone from the IOC to the Olympics corporate sponsors.

And yet, the Olympics do provide a platform for resistance. “But this year’s Winter Olympics offer us all an opportunity to look beyond sports and athletics and focus on the ways that sports can often highlight and intersect with human oppression,” writes Wade Davis II. “As we move closer to the 2014 Olympics, the oppression and violence directed towards LGBTQ individuals in Russia takes center stage, alongside the determination of who’s the world’s best in various sports.” Whether challenging Russia’s discrimination laws, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, #every28hours, or transnational sweatshops, the Olympics provide a powerful space of opposition.

The importance of the Olympics rests not only with its reach and the visibility engendered by global spectacle, but the dialectics that operate in and through these spaces.  To protest what is happening in Russia doesn’t require marching around the world or even public denunciations of the Russian government, Russian Olympic Committee, or the Russian Sports Federation.   Their partners are right around the corner. Our collective hands are dirty as well.  The silence from the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and their corporate sponsors – McDonalds, Samsung, and Coke, to name a few – warrants public denunciation. They provide the oxygen that allows for Russia oppression to breathe, live, and prosper. The complicity of these corporate powers is clear and it tells us something (or many things) about their politics – profits always take priority over people.

Russian Olympics

While it may be comforting to juxtapose the evil homophobes or Russia with the “liberal” United States, silence and complicity from the USOC, the federal government, Coke, and McDonalds should give us pause over such false binaries.

The potential for change doesn’t simply rest with boycotts or dumping out Vodka, but in demanding that all the partners in the Olympic movement publicly condemn the violence taking place in Russia, sweatshop-produced uniforms, or countless other injustices. I am not holding my breath, but the failure to imagine protests on multiple levels is short-sided. More importantly, the failure to look in the mirror to see how U.S. corporations and U.S. policy prop up violence and hatred, inequality and oppression in Russia and beyond is as myopic as those claiming the apolitical Olympics.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Action expresses priorities.” With 100 days to go until the Sochi Olympics, we will see priorities at work. Which priorities remains the question.

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