Putin’s Fool’s Gold Medal to the IOC

When will international sporting bodies ever learn? In 1980 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) got a very bloody nose from a huge boycott by 65 countries, who refused to attend the Moscow Olympics in protest at the Russian, or should I say the Soviet Union in those days, invasion of Afghanistan. Surely they wouldn’t make that expensive mistake again? However, less than 30 years later Russian President Vladimir Putin serenades them in the weeks running up to the decision on the winter Olympics 2014 and even speaks to them in English, something he has always refused to do in public until that day. He told them his country was a modern democracy, where human rights are at the forefront of everything they do…right! And guess what – the IOC fell for the Russian game yet again and awarded Sochi, and of course Putin, something the constitution of the IOC, which states that the awarded country should have “an acceptable domestic and international record on Human Rights”, really should have prevented: The Winter Olympics 2014.
Sochi Protest
So now, despite the lessons the IOC should have learned about giving Moscow anything after 1980, Putin struts around the Olympic village in Sochi, with almost a smile on his famously sour looking face, while presiding over a country with a rapidly growing reputation for intolerance and oppression. Indeed, some have declared the IOC’s decision as the worst since giving Adolf Hitler a platform for him to strut about in his fascist jack boots, when they gave Berlin the Olympics of 1936.

Putin has reportedly spent more than $50 billion — more than all previous Winter Games combined — to unveil a “new Russia” at the Sochi Olympics. Although there are countless reports that more than half of that money has disappeared through corruption or avoidable waste whilst other reports warn us that Sochi’s shiny new infrastructure is little more than a Potemkin village, an extravagant ruse designed to deceive the world about the true nature of Putin’s police state.

Putin’s “new Russia,” it turns out, looks very much like the old Russia that denied freedom of expression, religious liberty and other human rights under both the Tsars and the Soviets. Consider, for example, two repressive measures Putin signed into law on the same day last June. The better known of the two is the so-called “gay propaganda” law that has been widely condemned as a violation of free speech and freedom of assembly. Under the guise of protecting children from information about homosexuality, the law stigmatizes and silences LGBT Russians by preventing free speech, public gatherings and distribution of literature. Since the bill’s enactment, harassment and violence directed at LGBT people has escalated in cities all across Russia. The second bill got fewer headlines, but it also raises alarms about the deterioration of freedom in Putin’s Russia. Prompted by the punk band Pussy Riot’s protest in Moscow’s main cathedral in 2012, the Duma passed a law criminalizing insulting people’s “religious feelings” in public. As a result, anyone who dares offend the sensibilities of the faithful (and this usually means Russian Orthodox believers) could face 3 years imprisonment and a stiff fine.

The “gay propaganda” and “blasphemy” bills are the latest in a whole series of Russian laws passed in recent years limiting freedom of expression and belief while protecting the power and privilege of the ruling elite and Russian Orthodox Church. According to a 2012 report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a law banning unauthorized public gatherings has been used against minority religious communities, including a Protestant pastor fined for holding a religious service. Another law intended to counter “extremism” has been used to ban Muslim religious texts and treat as criminals people who prepare, store or distribute banned texts. Muslims, Evangelicals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups in Russia have now all suffered discrimination and harassment under these and similar laws.

On paper at least, the 1993 Russian Constitution recognizes all religions as equal before the law, and guarantees freedom of speech and religion. In practice, however, Putin’s government has an unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, an entanglement of church and state that contributes to repression of LGBT people and minority faiths.

Of course the IOC in true fashion have been almost totally silent on these issues, and issued at best only a few generalised broad brush statements in a desperate effort to avoid further accusations of bribery (which was proved to be almost endemic, within the committee at the time Putin was given the games) and to also limit any protests, as it did, to a fairly large scale snubbing by world leaders and dignitaries – who refused to attend the opening ceremony. However, the IOC are not the only body to make such avoidable mistake over Russia.

Four years ago Sepp Blatter, who has presided over and mysteriously survived a decade of sleaze and bribery at football’s world governing body FIFA, stunned the world by giving the long outsider, Russia, the 2018 World Cup Finals. Then as if to emphasize the scale of corruption, they announced 4 years earlier than normal, that the 2022 Finals would be in Qatar in June of that year. This decision, which was championed by Blatter and Blatter’s deputy, Mohamed Bin Hammam, who is actually from Qatar, but who was forced from office a year later after the biggest bribery scandal in Fifa’s history, also confounded the world. And some have described it as akin to deciding to hold a major golf or tennis open championship in Greenland… in the middle of winter! And yet Blatter still insists it will go ahead and, perhaps more mysteriously, he has decided to seek re-election as president at the next FIFA ballot – which we must at least hope for once is not rigged.

The biggest losers of course of any contentious event are the men and women who give over their lives to train for these once in a lifetime events, whose presence unfortunately adds some validation to bad decisions – but let’s never forget it is not their fault but the fault of the awarding bodies who put them there. Over the next few weeks, Putin will get his $50-billion moment in the sun courtesy of the IOC, and he will probably still be around in 2018 for the World Cup awarded by Mr Brown Envelope himself, Sepp Blatter of FIFA. However, we should never let the Olympic hype obscure the ugly truth about Putin’s rule because at the Sochi Games, all that glitters is certainly not gold.