Pol­i­tics no stranger to the Games

China Daily (Canada) - - COMMENT -

Mod­ern Olympic Games are never en­tirely free from pol­i­tics, but their level of politi­ciza­tion varies. Award­ing the games to Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964, and Mu­nich in 1972 was meant to sym­bol­ize the post-World War II re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of the three for­mer Axis pow­ers. The 1988 Games were awarded to Seoul to high­light South Korea’s spec­tac­u­lar eco­nomic suc­cess and en­cour­age its moves to­ward po­lit­i­cal de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion. But spikes in ten­sion dur­ing the Cold War led to the boy­cott of the 1980 Moscow Games by the United States and sev­eral other coun­tries and to the re­cip­ro­cal de­ci­sion by the Soviet Union and its al­lies to stay away from the 1984 Olympics in Los An­ge­les.

Af­ter the end of the Cold War, there have been no boy­cotts, but ten­sions have been pal­pa­ble. Giv­ing the 2008 Games to Bei­jing was recog­ni­tion of China’s rise, which has lifted hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple out of poverty and ush­ered in a global eco­nomic power. There was crit­i­cism in the West at the time over the state of hu­man rights in China, and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies in the Ti­bet and Xinjiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gions. How­ever, world lead­ers, in­clud­ing then US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, came for the open­ing cer­e­mony. China’s im­por­tance to the world was so great that few politi­cians thought they could af­ford to ig­nore, never mind snub, Bei­jing.

The cur­rent con­tro­versy over the Sochi Olympics re­flects the prob­lems Rus­sia is now fac­ing in its re­la­tions with the United States and Europe. Vladimir Putin’s re­turn to the Krem­lin in 2012 came as a big dis­ap­point­ment to those in the West who had hoped Rus­sia would grad­u­ally lib­er­al­ize and mod­ern­ize as it was be­com­ing a de facto as­so­ci­ate of the Euro­pean Union and a ju­nior part­ner of the US. To their dis­may, the mass protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 did not lead to ma­jor po­lit­i­cal changes in Rus­sia, but rather to a re­con­sol­i­da­tion of Putin’s gov­er­nance. Putin’s pol­icy of elim­i­nat­ing any sources of for­eign in­flu­ence on Rus­sian do­mes­tic pol­i­tics; ter­mi­nat­ing or rene­go­ti­at­ing agree­ments be­tween Rus­sia and the US — which had the US as a donor and Rus­sia as aid re­cip­i­ent — and a self-con­scious shift to­ward con­ser­vatism in the Krem­lin did noth­ing to gain Rus­sia more sym­pa­thy in the West.

In to­day’s world, po­lit­i­cal par­ties and var­i­ous in­ter­est groups can weigh in heav­ily on gov­ern­ments’ poli­cies. Not only did Rus­sia and the West strongly dis­agree over Syria. The Mag­nit­sky Law, passed by US Congress, sanc­tioned sev­eral Rus­sian of­fi­cials; the for­mer US Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den, who first es­caped to Hong Kong, and then wound up in Moscow, ru­ined the USRus­sian sum­mit in Moscow; the jail­ing of mem­bers of the Pussy Riot group (now re­leased) for a “blas­phe­mous” per­for­mance in Moscow’s main cathe­dral in­censed Euro­pean lib­er­als and hu­man rights cam­paign­ers; and the adop­tion by the Rus­sian State Duma of new leg­is­la­tion ban­ning gay pro­pa­ganda to mi­nors turned the LGBT com­mu­nity into im­pla­ca­ble foes of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. For the Western me­dia, Vladimir Putin re­mains the bête noire.

It is only re­cently that world lead­ers adopted the habit of vis­it­ing the Olympic Games open­ing cer­e­monies. Bei­jing in 2008 saw the first im­pres­sive line-up. Politi­cians, of course, are not es­sen­tial at sports events, sports­men and sportswomen are. The 1980 and 1984 boy­cotts were about en­tire sports del­e­ga­tions stay­ing at home, not about politi­cians can­cel­ing trips. Yet, in 2014 there is a word of boy­cotting the Sochi Olympics. US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande, UK Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron and sev­eral other im­por­tant lead­ers have all an­nounced they will not come. Putin did not like their ges­tures, but as the head of the host coun­try, he will be wel­com­ing dozens of other im­por­tant fig­ures.

China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping will take part in the open­ing cer­e­mony, in re­turn for Putin’s visit to the 2008 Bei­jing Olympics. This third trip by Xi to Rus­sia af­ter be­com­ing Pres­i­dent last March is meant to be a strong ges­ture in sup­port of the evolv­ing strate­gic part­ner­ship be­tween China and Rus­sia. This part­ner­ship stands on its own feet, but pres­sure on Putin from the West makes him lean more on the East. For all the dif­fer­ences in­her­ent in their re­la­tions, Moscow and Bei­jing need each other to de­fend and pro­mote their in­ter­ests, vis-a-vis the West.

Ja­pan’s Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe will at­tend the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Games. He will meet with Putin, who will be go­ing on a rare of­fi­cial visit to Ja­pan later this year. The ab­sence of sev­eral Western lead­ers and the pres­ence of Asian lu­mi­nar­ies high­lights the re­bal­anc­ing of Moscow’s for­eign pol­icy to­ward Asia and the Pa­cific. Not all Euro­peans will stay at home, how­ever. The Nether­lands, an im­por­tant trad­ing part­ner of Rus­sia in the Euro­pean Union, will be rep­re­sented by the king, the queen and the prime min­is­ter. As for those who have cho­sen not to at­tend this time, they will not be able to es­cape a visit to Sochi—four months af­ter the Games, Putin will be back in Sochi, host­ing the G8 sum­mit. The au­thor is di­rec­tor of the Carnegie Moscow center.


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