Storm clouds over Sochi
Harley Filben on the intersection of sport and Vladimir Putin's reactionary-populist agenda
Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony
If war is the continuation of politics by other means, where does that leave sport?
Such is the question begged by the endless controversies surrounding the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Over the last year, the Russian state has repeatedly bashed heads with the United States and its allies on the global stage. There was the interminable staring match over Syria, for one, with Russian support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime a major stumbling block for Barack Obama, David Cameron et al, as they bungled their shot at a military intervention.
It does not end there, of course: Russia is a wild card in the ongoing negotiations with Iran. And now there is the Ukrainian uprising, which pitches a motley alliance of pro- European Union liberals and semi-fascists against the common enemy to the north, and its stooge government in Kiev. To the injuries, we may add the insults. Russia harbours the US’s most wanted man, whistleblower Edward Snowden, protecting him from the fate of Chelsea Manning (or worse).
Thus the enormous attention given to Russian authoritarianism, now that the glare of the international sporting spotlight is on Sochi. First among the points of contention is the increasingly worrying position of homosexuals in Russian society. The immediate flashpoint is a national law banning “propaganda for non-traditional relationships”, transparently - if euphemistically - targeted at Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, which renders illegal everything from pride marches to merely speaking in favour of gay equality, if it is judged that minors might overhear.
That was passed by the duma - and signed by Vladimir Putin - in June last year, but similar laws had been passed repeatedly at a local level around Russia. Krasnodar Krai, the administrative district containing Sochi, had already outlawed such “propaganda” in 2012.
The broader context of such laws is the whole Putin project: as a backlash against the plutocratic bonanza of Boris Yeltsin’s premiership, Putin has taken his stand on a virulently nationalist, populist and conservative programme. Yeltsin’s reign saw shock-therapy privatisation result in the emergence of a layer of ultra-rich plutocrats and widespread social chaos. Where chaos reigns, people generally look for order.
Order was Putin’s promise. The forces of law and order would be strengthened, and traditionalistic conservatism promoted. The infamous oligarchs have been left, for the most part, unmolested - provided they make peace with Putin. Those that do not are punished and humiliated, to the hardly surprising joy of many Russians. Along with this process, all manner of reactionary ideas flourish. National chauvinism unites all mainstream political parties, including the former ruling party of the USSR; anti- Semitism, racism and open fascism are on the rise.
It is hardly surprising that homophobia and anti-gay sentiment should accompany all this. The Russian Orthodox Church has regained a lot of the power it lost after 1917, and promotes broadly the social agenda you would expect such a venerable gang of reactionaries to uphold. ‘Traditional’ social mores are as sacrosanct as they were under the tsar; and the brief period of formal sexual freedom enjoyed by non-heterosexuals, after the fall of the Stalinist regime, has definitively come to an end. And it is hardly a matter purely of the statute books - enjoying “non-traditional” sexual relations can be a matter of life and death. Brutal fascist attacks on pride marches are, at the very least, tolerated by the state regime; who knows how many are beaten or even murdered in this toxic atmosphere?
So the international outcry, then, is almost entirely sincere. The forces of official liberalism - from Obama to Google, which accompanied an Olympic-themed doodle with a word of protest on the first day of the contest - have decried the repression of gays (and others, it must be said), as has the left (barring its most diseased elements, who are gulled by Putin’s wafer-thin ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials).
Others who gripe at Putin’s authoritarianism, however, we must suspect of humbug. Those parts of the American right who rattle off hysterical threats to the Russians like wronged schoolboys are very often the same people who defend bigoted Christian fundamentalism to their enraged constituents. David Cameron has stated that he is “concerned” by the new Russian laws; but ten years ago he was happy to vote for retaining ‘section 28’, the similar, if less extreme, law passed by Thatcher’s government in 1988. At that time, we note, Putin seemed perfectly happy with “homosexual propaganda” - and thus presumably more modern and civilised than our own prime minister. How things change ...
A group of 50 athletes have signed a statement of protest against the Russian government, and many have criticised the International Olympic Committee for not somehow doing more to fight Putin’s laws. Exactly what you could expect them to do under the circumstances is another matter; of those few options, taking any would open the IOC to charges of the rankest hypocrisy. It happily wheeled the circus into Munich a year after Hitler’s Nuremberg laws came into force. A state massacre of students in Mexico was not enough to stop the show in 1968. What chance did a Moscow lesbian have of blocking this juggernaut from landing in Sochi?
Concessions - or, at least, delays - might have been achieved on the basis of a large-scale boycott, which was sought by many gay rights activists. As usual, such calls met with dismal failure. Sebastian Coe, who fronted up the London summer games, was certainly against that: “I believe that coming to Moscow in 1980 was the right thing to do and 10 years later we saw those changes,” he said last year.
The primary purpose of the Olympics - winter, summer, para - is to allow gratuitous, peacock-style displays of state power. The accumulation of medals is a low-stakes surrogate for the accumulation of armoured personnel carriers, armed drones and cruise missiles; the bottomless money-hole loaned to host countries equally allows a great deal of fatuous strutting about on the part of the local establishment. (Also, there is some sport.)
The Olympics do not somehow subvert tyranny - they reinforce it. The Russian state has locked down Sochi like a maximum-security prison. Communications are bugged. Troops are everywhere. Everything is on high alert. The bombing of the Boston marathon last year by Chechens was a timely reminder of how that wound still festers: every Islamist splinter group in Grozny might have been harbouring big plans for the occasion, and the whole might of the Russian security state has been focused on making sure all goes to plan, via the time-honoured means of subterfuge and brute force.
But, of course, this will all be eerily familiar to Londoners, who saw a grand patch of their city cordoned off by squaddies, and surface-to-air missiles installed on their roofs. Under the sign of the Olympic rings, the very most authoritarian tendencies of any country flourish: its cities are effectively put under martial law; its most egregious plutocrats benefit to the tune of billions; its disparities in wealth and power are seen in sharp relief.
What is the pay-off? The augmentation of grand national fictions, of course. On February 7, Cameron made his pitch to the Scottish people on behalf of the union (sorry, “brand Britain”). It was full of the usual patriotic guff - the UK is “the most extraordinary nation in history”, a claim for which there is scant empirical evidence, and so on. He was not in Scotland, however. He was in the Olympic velodrome in east London, with Chris Hoy, the Scottish Olympic cyclist.
His choice of podium has been interpreted as an error, but it was certainly no accident. He clearly believes he can sucker the Scots with the Olympic spirit: “the red, the white, the blue … the summer that patriotism came out of the shadows and into the sun. Everyone cheering as one for Team GB.” That is what £9 billion buys you - speeches of vomit-inducing banality from senior politicians, and the illusion that Britain is more than a large offshore operation for Wall Street.
Whether it works is another question entirely. In Britain, the pattern seemed to hold of a lot of grumbling in the run-up, dissolved overnight by £30 million-worth of opening ceremony and weeks of feverish excitement (there was, after all, some sport). There are signs, however, that a visit from the circus - in these straitened times - is no longer so universally and rapturously received. Not every country launders enough money through its financial centres to afford that kind of price tag. Ordinary Brazilians even erupted into mass protest, in part at the deleterious effect a double-whammy of international sport - the football World Cup and 2016’s summer Olympics - was having on those bits of the public purse on which they rely. Nobody could accuse the people of Brazil of insufficient enthusiasm for football; yet there they were on the streets, demanding the heads of government ministers.
One thing is certain: as long as global sport is the plaything of a decaying, malfunctioning capitalism, it will be first and foremost a gift to reactionary state functionaries and unscrupulous grafters - and only distantly after that a spectacle for its enthusiasts.