The Sochi Olympics Emboldened Putin's Abuses in Ukraine and Russia

Organizing the Olympics is not only the precise opposite of international isolation, it probably emboldened Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine. Why did Russia get the Olympics in the first place given its appalling human rights record?
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The irony is palpable when Americans and Europeans impose diplomatic and economic sanctions to isolate Russia from the international community shortly after it hosted the winter Olympics in Sochi. Hosting the international community for one of the biggest sports events worldwide put Russia at the very center of the global stage soon before it intensified its meddling in Ukraine. Organizing the Olympics is not only the precise opposite of international isolation, it probably emboldened Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine. Why did Russia get the Olympics in the first place given its appalling human rights record?

Hosting the Olympics is often perceived as a reward for a country's prestige and prosperity. Even when the selection of a host country is criticized for failing to meet such criteria, the Olympics still allow the country to bask in the global spotlight. In particular, the grandiose opening and closing Olympic ceremonies largely serve as a means of glorifying a country and emphasizing its importance in the international community.

Putin saw the Olympics as an opportunity to reaffirm Russia's status as a world power. The ex-KGB officer equally viewed the Olympics as a platform to assert the legitimacy of his authoritarian regime while spurning Western calls for democracy and human rights in Russia. The military occupation of Crimea and its prospective annexation likewise follow Putin's vision of a mighty Russia prepared to defy Western powers. After Putin reveled in the pride of having brought the Olympics to Russia, how likely will he be to tone down his show of power in Ukraine?

Scores of people do not seem to care about where the Olympic Games occur so long as they get a chance to spend hours on end watching their favorite sporting events on TV. The Olympics commonly serve as a leisurely escape from the stress of the "real world," including politics. The significant political implications behind the Olympics are therefore frequently eclipsed.

Most of the criticism surrounding the hosting of the Olympics in Sochi revolved around a new Russian law harshening the repression of gay people. Yet, gross human rights violations in Russia did not begin or end with this law passed in June 2013. The persecution of gays in Russia arises in the context of a broader repression of human rights as a whole. Putin's political opponents have long faced oppression and intimidation. Various Russian journalists have been murdered or assaulted in recent years. According to the Freedom in the World index, Russia is among the most authoritarian countries worldwide and its human rights violations are worsening. Russia is likewise among the most corrupt countries according to Transparency International's global index of corruption.

By focusing narrowly on the latest anti-gay law or the arrest of Pussy Riot members, numerous commentators ignored the fundamental reason why the Olympics should not have taken place in Sochi: the Olympics should never be awarded to a country with an abysmal human rights record.

In theory, awarding the Olympics to an authoritarian country could have a positive effect by pressuring it to open to the world and transition towards democracy. The 1988 Seoul Olympics were indeed one of the factors that helped usher South Korea on the path to democracy. Nevertheless, playing host to the Olympics usually has an opposite effect by emboldening authoritarian regimes.

Since the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, China has remained a firmly authoritarian one-party state. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is among the dissidents imprisoned for urging a peaceful transition to democracy in China. Naturally, one may wonder whether hosting the Olympics made any difference in China's case since its regime neither recognized human rights before the Olympics nor after they occurred. However, the honor of hosting the Olympics lent an appearance of legitimacy and respectability to the Chinese government. After all, why would a regime see the need for reform if it was granted the privilege of hosting the most celebrated international sporting event besides the World Cup?

The same can be said with regard to Russia. Perhaps Putin's recent actions would have been exactly the same if Russia had not hosted the Olympics, as Russia has long meddled in Ukraine. It would be oversimplistic to attribute the complex Ukraine crisis solely to the Olympics. Yet, at the very least, Western efforts to sanction and pressure Russia by isolating it internationally seem contradictory in the wake of the Olympics. It is not persuasive to claim that the international community condemns Russia's actions when Russia just spent several weeks entertaining the international community.

The notion that the Olympics should not be awarded to a country with an appalling human rights record is sometimes dismissed on the ground that human rights violations exist in all countries. Since no country has a perfect human rights record, it is said, there is little sense in arguing that certain nations are not fit to host the Olympics.

However, differences of degree matter when it comes to human rights. For instance, there are surely social injustices in Sweden even though it is widely considered one of the most progressive and egalitarian democracies worldwide. But the situation in Sweden cannot compare to that in countries like Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea, which are among the worst human rights violators. There are objective criteria to evaluate human rights, such as a democratic electoral process, the freedom of the press, the liberty of thought and speech, and the right to due process of law, to cite a few examples.

Because no dictatorship offers basic human rights protections, the Olympics should never be awarded to a country headed by an authoritarian regime. Moreover, the Olympics should not be organized by a democratic country when its practices do not comport with international human rights standards. Illustratively, the United States should not be awarded the Olympics until it closes the Guantanamo detention camp.

In other words, the point is not that the Olympics should necessarily be awarded to Western powers like America, Britain or France if they are withheld from authoritarian powers like China or Russia. The International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) should follow objective human rights criteria in determining which countries are eligible to host the Games.

The I.O.C. is technically supposed to abide by the Olympic Charter's goal of "promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." But the I.O.C. has long made a mockery of this principle. The Olympics are a multibillion dollar event in which concerns over "human dignity" are far from a priority.

Assuming there is an inherent tension between human rights and the Olympic Games, then perhaps something will have to give. But why should we sacrifice basic human rights and not the Olympics? The world needs human dignity more than a sporting event.

We need not face this dilemma if most countries choose to foster change by refusing to participate in Olympics hosted by a nation with a troubling human rights record, much less a brutal dictatorship. This would be a welcome yet belated realization nearly 80 years after Hitler's Nazi Germany proudly hosted the Olympics in 1936.

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