When Sochi, Russia, was chosen as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to put on a "really spectacular show." But the buildup to the games, which got underway this week, was accompanied less by lofty expectations than by controversy.
Security concerns and huge cost overruns tied to allegedly rampant corruption have brought into question Russia's ability to host a mega-event and the wisdom of placing the games in a volatile part of the world. In the political sphere, Putin's government has faced criticism over both a bevy of anti-gay laws and its intolerance for dissent, the latter of which metastasized last year in the jailing of two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot for performing anti-Putin music.
Putin wants the Sochi games to be a coming out party for Russia, experts say, as they are the first Olympics held there since the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Putin's the first Russian leader in decades who's been able to restore the ability of the Russian Federation to deliver on these big infrastructure development projects that the czars had, that the Soviet leaders had," says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "Putin demonstrating that he can do this is a statement about the power and the success of the system that he has built and for which he is personally responsible."
This is not the first Olympics where an autocratic host nation hoped to prove its legitimacy on the world stage. For instance, the Chinese government did the same with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. "Part of the message out of Beijing was that China has arrived, and its resurgence as a great power was very much wrapped up in the Olympics," says Ely Ratner, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Not all experts agree, though, that these Olympics are about Putin showing off a newly powerful Russia. "I see the Sochi Olympics as actually part of a much bigger strategy that Putin has been pursuing consistently over the past 12, 13 years, ever since he's been in power really, and the strategy is to internationalize Russia as much as possible. To make it as open to the world as possible," says Anton Fedyashin, executive director of the Initiative for Russian Culture and an assistant professor at American University.
Whether it's to signal power or openness, staging a mega-event means ensuring that nothing, including political protests, steals the spotlight. For Russia, that has meant limits on both speech and assembly. Compounding the problem is that a legitimate terrorist threat exists in southwestern Russia - 34 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Volgograd, Russia, in late December - giving Russian authorities an excuse to implement more draconian restrictions. "Residents in Sochi, their freedom of assembly has been suspended until after the Olympic games," says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a blogger for U.S. News. "These days they're doing it under the guise of anti-terrorism, which is a legitimate cause, but it's a cause that enables the worst impulses on the part of authoritarian governments."
Russia also initially instituted a sweeping ban on protests during the games, but it has now eased that in favor of creating "protest zones." But the zones are miles away from where Olympic events will actually take place. "You can protest, but no one's going to see you doing it," says Robert Orttung, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and co-author of the forthcoming book "The 2014 Winter Olympics and the Evolution of Putin's Russia."
In adopting protest zones and limiting assembly, Russia is again following the lead of China. "In Beijing, they put a huge clampdown on the ability to assemble, including shutting down bars and restaurants," says Ratner, who was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. But Russia could also be emulating the U.S., where creating "free speech zones" is a popular tactic, particularly around political conventions.
So what is the international community to do when the Olympics become a tool for authoritarians to exert even more power? Often, the only viable option is a boycott, but history has shown that boycotting the games for political purposes doesn't accomplish very much.
Consider the 1980 boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow, meant to protest the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Anita DeFrantz, an American member of the IOC and a former Olympian, has called the boycott "a pointless exercise and a shameful part of U.S. history." Even the State Department admits as much, saying, "the Carter administration had wanted to express the extent of international displeasure with the invasion of Afghanistan and to pressure the Soviets to pull their armies out of the conflict. In actuality, the Soviet-Afghan War continued and did not end until 1989."
Calls to boycott the Sochi games in response to Russia's anti-gay laws were made by, among others, producer Harvey Weinstein and prominent liberal blogger Duncan Black. But a wider boycott movement never really got off the ground, and received no support from anyone in the government.
It was a different story in 1936, when the U.S. seriously considered boycotting the Berlin games. Jeremiah Mahoney, head of the Amateur Athletic Union, which then regulated amateur sports in the U.S., said participating in Berlin would be akin to "giving American moral and financial support to the Nazi regime, which is opposed to all that Americans hold dearest." The IOC even considered moving the games from Berlin altogether. But in the end the games went on, and the United States didn't boycott after the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee personally vouched for the Germans.
Given the recurring issues, why are authoritarian regimes still chosen as hosts? "The IOC is attracted to a place that can build all new facilities," says Orttung. "There's clearly a sense there that the IOC was attracted to the ability to spend money without any kind of oversight." It's perhaps no coincidence that Sochi is the most expensive Olympics ever, besting the record set by Beijing.
The IOC dodges culpability for these problems by disavowing any link between politics and sports. "The organization itself is geared in favor of these authoritarian ways. They try and separate sports from politics, even though the whole reason for having the Olympics is really a political one for Putin," says Orttung. When criticism of Russia's anti-gay law was at its zenith, the IOC responded by simply reaffirming that political statements at the games are frowned upon.
There is, though, precedent for the Olympics being a catalyst for change, with the IOC playing a role. The 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, for instance, are largely seen as a seminal event in that country's transition from military dictatorship to democracy. The IOC's decision to ban South Africa from Olympic competition in 1964, meanwhile, was a key part of the worldwide campaign against apartheid.