International Spotlight on Sochi

February 3, 2014—The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have already inspired global fervor—from criticism of Russia’s treatment of sexual minorities to security concerns raised in the wake of suicide bombings in Volgograd—and the games haven’t even begun yet. This kind of scrutiny is only natural, and often times it can be a good thing.

International sporting events like the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup have the ability to create dialogue. Often that dialogue can provide the spark that leads to social change.

“Singular global events tend to be very powerful in focusing a spotlight on issues,” said Randall Amster, director of the university’s Program on Justice and Peace. “They can often be used as a magnifying glass.”

That has been true throughout the history of modern sport. The Olympic movement is no stranger to politics and has often wielded its power to make statements about global affairs and human rights.

In 1920 and 1924, Germany was barred from sending athletes to the Olympics as a result of their participation in World War I. The International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from competing in the games from 1964 to 1992 because of its racist apartheid policies. And in 1980, the United States and other nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

While there are no widespread boycotts planned for the Sochi Olympics, the games have stoked conversation about human rights in Russia, just as the Beijing games did in 2008. The same occurred during the most recent World Cup in South Africa and is currently happening in Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“It’s not a bad thing that these events draw our attention to the host nations’ internal turmoil,” said Amanda Munroe, the social justice curriculum and pedagogy coordinator for the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service.

Munroe, who is also a graduate of the university’s Master of Arts program in conflict resolution, has studied the intersection of sports and peace building. The fact that global sporting events like the Olympics take place, she says, allows people to engage in sensitive issues, be they gay rights in Russia or environmental concerns in China or poverty in South Africa.

To wit, it’s important to ask whether anyone outside of Russia would be aware of the country’s treatment of its LGBT citizens were it not for the international spotlight that is now being shined on it. While Russian authorities are not cowing to international pressure, they are being forced to answer for their actions against their citizens, says Milla Fedorova, associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages.

Fedorova is originally from Moscow and has been following Russian media in the lead-up to the games. She’s also been keeping tabs on what her Russian friends are saying on social media. Her friends are glad that President Vladimir Putin’s administration is being scrutinized. But, she says, they worry Putin is merely paying lip service to the international community’s outcry over Russia’s treatment of LGBT people. Still, it’s creating a kind of dialogue.

“Regardless of their intention, it’s good that measures are being taken,” she said, referring to Russia’s recent slight easing of its draconian LGBT propaganda laws. “They’ve realized they’ve gone too far with this law.”

While global sporting events have the ability to direct the world’s gaze on pressing internal issues, they also allow for a civil acknowledgement of differences among nations and a healthy outlet for conflict. Amster argues that sport could be thought of as a moral equivalent of war.

“In general, the more times countries cross their barriers, the more cultural exchange and political discourse can happen,” Amster said.

He points to cultures that had elaborate, bloodless competitive rituals in lieu of war. Lacrosse is a sport whose origins can be traced to Native American symbolic warfare. It provided resolutions to conflict without bloodshed.

Munroe suggests that sport is an excellent way of dealing with conflict because conflict is inherent in sport, with teams fighting to determine who is superior. Through international competition, countries can engage with each other in a nonviolent manner. That kind of interaction can be critical in peace building, Munroe says.

“Conflict is very real in sports in a way that’s different from general policy analysis,” Monroe continued.

As the world’s attention turns to Sochi, Fedorova hopes that positive change can come to the country after the Olympics pack up and the glare of the international spotlight is no longer upon the nation. If the games influence further good in the Russia, Fedorova will be happy. But only time will tell.

—Lauren Ober