Spirit of sport, not politics, must come first at Sochi Olympic Games

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:23am

The Olympic Games are about sport and friendship, but their high profile inevitably means that politics creeps in. Any host country becomes an international focus for scrutiny and pressure. Russia's staging of the Winter Olympics at Sochi has meant more than the usual amount of attention, though; President Vladimir Putin has invested so much political capital in ensuring they are a success that they have become known as "Putin's Games". His tough policies and tepid relations with the West and some former Soviet nations have as a consequence sparked boycotts, threats and allegations.

World leaders usually don't attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the event being of a lesser scale than the summer version. A number have nonetheless symbolically announced they will not be going to the opening ceremony this Friday to show disapproval with Russia's stand on political freedoms, free speech and human rights, particularly of gays and lesbians. While President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will attend, a prominent list will not, among them US President Barack Obama, France's Francois Hollande and European Union commissioner Viviane Reding.

But the threat of terrorism and allegations of corruption are also prominent. Sochi is near the volatile regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, homes to Muslim militants and from where deadly attacks against the Russian state have come. Volgagrad, 680 kilometres from Sochi, was targeted by terrorists last month, with 34 people killed in two bomb blasts. Putin has denied claims that the vast infrastructure required to host the Games has benefitted political allies and business acquaintances.

Politically motivated boycotts by Western athletes marred Moscow's last hosting of an Olympics in 1980. The cold war has long passed, though, and Russia is a modern nation. It has successfully hosted international sporting events and will stage the soccer World Cup in 2018. The Sochi Games are a matter of prestige for Moscow, but will also boost tourism and further develop a city that is Russia's de facto southern capital.

The Games are putting pressure on Putin to ensure greater tolerance towards minorities and opponents. Russia has been positively responding to those demands. Critics are sceptical, but there is no denying the worth of international scrutiny. Ultimately, though, the Olympic spirit is grounded in peace and goodwill and these, with sport, have to come ahead of politics.