Olympic-Level Denial

By Nathan Nye

After the holidays, I’ve gotten used to not talking about politics. I’m the lone Leftist sheep in my flock of bright red sheep and Democratic blue dogs, so over time I’ve learned to keep my opinions to myself. When my relatives (whom I love dearly) spit out the word “Obama” like a curse word or recite a “fact” from a Fox News invective, I have learned to smile politely or stuff my mouth with whatever holiday food is in front of me.

It seems like a lot of Olympic athletes are still following the same post-Holiday “No Politics” rule.

As NBC is constantly reminding us, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia begin next month, and if you don’t know, they’ve been deemed controversial.

After some early rumblings about the location from Circassian nationalists, the real scandal of Sochi revealed itself, the treatment of LGBT folks by the Russian government (and citizens). Russian culture has seized on the evils of non-straight people. Laws which outlawed “Homosexual Propaganda” (talking about/acting gay) and stopping adoptions for gay couples are the legal culmination of a growing tide of resentment toward LGBT people. For instance, Neo-Nazi groups have been torturing and killing gay men. Understandably, some people were concerned what it meant to go to the Olympics when the atmosphere towards a marginalized group of people was so charged.

President Obama, along with other Western leaders have spoken against this backslide, as have many LGBT organizations and sports organizations. The people who have been silent are the athletes who will be participating in the games. When many of the American athletes have been asked their thoughts, they’ve responded along the lines that “the Olympics aren’t a place for politics.”

I take issue with this. The Olympics are entirely a place for politics. Now, they may be referencing the fact that athletes are not allowed to make political statements during the games in order to keep the focus on athletics and “international community.” However, I think it’s important to recognize that the entire structure of the games is for countries (political organizations) to send athletes to compete to beat other countries. Does that sound apolitical to you? Me either.

However, the politics of the games are interesting to consider. As a grand operatic of skill and competition, could the Olympics be a stage on which we allow release for the friction built up by the restraints of global society? Could the controlled rink be a simulated space for defiance and glory for smaller countries? Maybe. Either way the message that the Olympics are apolitical is off-base, perhaps the more accurate phrasing would be that the Olympics aren’t about specific politics, but rather the system as a whole. It’s certainly fascinating and I’ve only begun to dive into the topic.

So, as this issue will continue to be pressing in the weeks leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, and so The Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics will be having a Conversation in Human Rights on the Olympics next month with Professor Michael Newcity. We’ll be posting more information on our Human Rights page soon, so stay tuned!