For the first time since boycotting the 1980 Summer Games in Soviet Union’s Moscow, the United States is participating in a Russian-hosted Olympics next month in Sochi. Controversies surrounding international LGBT rights and National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s political asylum have further muddied the waters.
For such reasons, the public and media-driven buildup to the Feb. 7 opening ceremony of the Sochi Games has largely concerned politics, not athletic competition, according to panelists at the weekly Journalism Forum series held on Jan. 21. The joint edition of the series was hosted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy.
Before a packed room of faculty and students, Professor Daniel Durbin moderated a discussion featuring Professor Alan Abrahamson and Derek Shearer, an Occidental College professor and former ambassador to Finland.
“The host country has clear international soft power motives in mind,” Shearer said. “In the case of Russia, which is a kind of newly constituted nation out of the Soviet Union, clearly this is about more than sports. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to send a global message that Russia is back — Russia is a modern, important player in the world.”
That message has cost Russia nearly $50 billion, Abrahamson said, significantly more than the price of the much larger 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
“These Games are not just an investment in Russia’s image for the world, they are an investment in Russia’s image for Russians,” he noted. “Let’s not forget that it’s only been since 1991 that this country has been what it is.”
The hot-button issue of the day was President Barack Obama’s decision not to send a senior political official to lead the Sochi delegation. Breaking precedent, former female tennis star Billie Jean King, figure skater Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow will be the featured American representatives in Russia.
The panelists argued that King and Boitano, both openly gay, are being used as diplomatic tools to combat Russia’s ongoing conflict over homosexuality.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt to what he’s done,” Shearer said in reference to the president. “One could argue that Obama could have handled it slightly differently — I would have probably done what he did in terms of the delegation, but I also would have sent some senior leadership.”
Abrahamson, who had previously penned an open letter to the president questioning his choice of delegation members, said the political move will ultimately hurt Team USA.
“The Americans are going to get the worst housing with very difficult logistics and very difficult transport at these Olympic Games … that’s just the reality,” said Abrahamson, who will travel to Sochi to cover the Games for the eighth time in his career.
“If you were talk to members of the International Olympic Committee, this is not the way they would approach [handling the delegation]. They would tell you the president of the United States should not be in the business of telling the president of the Russian Federation what he should be doing,” he explained. “By the way, if the United States is really interested in getting the Olympic Games in the summer of 2024, who is he to be telling them what they should be doing?”
The panelists also downplayed the recent terrorism threats toward the Games — Abrahamson called Sochi “the safest place in the world for those 17 days,” noting that the last Olympic terrorist incident happened in Atlanta in 1996.
Added Shearer: “Sochi — this is the most secure Olympics you could imagine. If you look at the geography, they basically shut down entry into the Olympic region. They’ve got more than 50,000 police and troops on hand — it’s going to be secure.”
Both agreed that an incident-free Games will equate to a huge diplomacy win for Russia.
“It will get positive coverage around the world as it’s no longer the shattered, weak, former Soviet Union,” Shearer said. “It’s Russia — a modern nation with a modern venue putting on these Games, and a confident president leading them.”
Despite being an isolated location that is projected to have empty seats and low ticket sales, Sochi will be put on the map during the Games for its natural beauty and appealing slopes.
“The visuals will be stunning — if you’ve seen the mountains, they are absolutely spectacular, they’re part of a world that almost nobody knows about,” Abrahamson said. “And let’s not forget that this is the opening salvo in Russia’s decade of sports. After this you have the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix, the World Cup in 2018 and whatever else Putin decides he wants.”
He added: “The Olympic Games are full of magical moments. Do I think these Games are going to be unique in the history of the Olympics? For sure.”