The notion that the Olympics promote world peace through sport is as quaint as the notion that the Miss Universe pageant promotes world peace through swimsuit modeling.
The upcoming Sochi Winter Games present a particularly ugly example of Olympics as political pawn. Terrorists have vowed to deliver their message in blood.
Accompanying the announcement of the 230-member U.S. team on Monday were more warnings of attacks and more arrivals of police and soldiers in Sochi. The Russian government expects to deploy 60,000 security personnel in the region, which means one gun-toting guard for every 100 people attending the Games. Add bomb-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, drones and pat-downs and it makes for a very festive atmosphere, dah? Unfortunately, for those who won’t be watching snowboarders and skaters from the safety of their sofas, nyet.
Sochi is a target illuminated by the Olympic spotlight. For a fanatic or jihadist, what better time and place to make a murderous statement?
When the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi in 2007 it was an unnecessary gamble, given the instability of the Caucasus region then and for past centuries. Now, it can only be called an act of hare-brained, irresponsible negligence.
Athletes have enough to worry about, including parasites in tap water, without carrying the burden of trepidation in their already overloaded brains. The IOC has put them in harm’s way. Some are telling relatives who sweated and sacrificed along with them to stay home. Nick Alvarez, older brother of Miami short track speedskater Eddy Alvarez and father of three young children, has decided not to go.
“It’s a tough call, but not worth the risk,” Nick said.
The dread of another Munich hangs over these Games. Terrorist threats have become part of the buildup to the Olympics. The porous borders of Greece caused concern in 2004. Plots by London’s underground cells put law enforcement on high alert in 2012. The 2002 Salt Lake City Games were held under suffocating security while the world still reeled from the grief and fear of the 9-11 airliner attacks. In 1996, a lone lunatic wreaked havoc in Atlanta.
The Olympics and events like them will always be a magnet for danger. But the IOC should not continue cozying up to repressive regimes in deluded attempts to reform them. Leave democracy building to the United Nations or Nobel Peace Prize visionaries, not to ex-fencers, skiers and yachtsmen.
The IOC couldn’t learn from Hitler’s glorification of Nazism in 1936?
Or the painful boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984? Or from China’s abuses of dissidents and poor people in its extravagant staging of Beijing 2008?
The IOC colluded with Russian strongman president Vladimir Putin’s ego in awarding him the Sochi Games. He has spent an Olympic record $51 billion to transform his favorite Black Sea summer resort and winter ski escape into an Olympic playground. Only time will tell whether venues keep seeing action or turn into white elephants, as they have in Beijing.
The cost of Putin’s two weeks on the Olympic platform has come in the form of massive kickbacks, environmental damage, deaths of two dozen construction workers, displacement of residents and detention of activists. Welcoming the world to the Olympics did not deter Putin’s government from enacting an anti-gay “propaganda” law.
Hosting the Olympics has allowed Putin to crack down on a simmering revolt in the North Caucasus while emboldening Islamist militants. The Games are pitting Putin, who seeks to burnish his image and consolidate power, against those who want to destroy it and secede from his new Russia.
A group in Dagestan, the region which radicalized the elder Boston Marathon bomber, says it was behind a suicide bombing in Volgograd in October 2013 that killed 34. Doku Umarov, leader of the Imarat Kavkaz insurgency, has called on followers to disrupt the Games.
Security forces are hunting for a 22-year-old suspected “Black Widow” suicide bomber who may have infiltrated Sochi’s “ring of steel.” Three other “Black Widows” — so named because their husbands have been killed in fighting that is commonplace in Chechnya and Abkhazia — are being sought. British authorities say more attacks are “very likely to occur” in Sochi, according to a report examined by the BBC.
U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” that no one should be scared away from the Olympics.
“If we do not support our team and show up, I think the terrorists are winning,” he said. “Having said that, I would say that the security threat to … this particular Olympics is the greatest I’ve ever seen.”
IOC president Thomas Bach praised Russia’s precautions on Monday while glossing over its civil rights problems.
“Fear is a bad advisor,” Bach said. “I’m sorry to tell you I’m sleeping very well.”
Let us hope the athletes can say the same.