Forum weighs Olympic politics, society, culture

As the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics drew near, professors and students gathered in the Center for Global Citizenship for a discussion about various aspects of the games. Entitled “The Sochi Olympics: Promise and Perils,” the Feb. 21 roundtable consisted of multiple professors presenting different perspectives on the games, from the intercultural promise shown in the Olympics to their inherently political nature.

The roundtable opened with a talk given by Michal Rozbicki, a professor in the Center for Intercultural Studies and History in which he aimed to connect the Olympics with interculturality. He argued that the games provide a rare opportunity for global communication in the form of sport.

“Once we realize that we are not tourists in a foreign land but also foreigners in someone’s homeland…[it] opens a door to understanding other people,” he said. “Everyone speaks the same language: it is the language of the game.”

Though he admitted that the Olympics are necessarily a form of conflict, he stated it was a conflict of agreement which expressed a symbolic global interaction.

“It’s a vision of the world that is capable of successfully promoting and advancing the intercultural,” Rozbicki said.

Elizabeth Blake, a professor of Modern and Classical Languages, discussed the unusual placement of the Olympics in Sochi, an area rife with conflict. She pointed first to Sochi’s bloody past, when Russia conquered the area in the mid-19th century and expelled the Circassians living there at the time. She also noted the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, stating that Putin has presented the Olympics as an opportunity “to bridge the diplomatic divide resulting from [Russia’s] 2008 invasion.”

She then turned to the extreme level of security enforcement present at the games, inspired by concerns surrounding attacks by Chechen rebels and Islamist terrorist groups. According to Blake, 70,000 security forces were in place at Sochi and police and security personnel constantly searched public spaces for Islamist militants. She cited U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner, who claimed that living in Sochi was like living in “a tight bubble in complete isolation from the outside world.”

Yelena Belyaeva-Standen, another professor in the Modern and Classical Languages department, commented on the living conditions of the average citizen of Sochi. She stated that many of the residents of Sochi traditionally rent out apartments at a discounted rate for visitors. According to Belyaeva-Standen, the multitude of hotel spaces that were created in preparation for the games has caused residents to anticipate a loss of income due to an overabundance of living areas at rates much lower than the high-end resorts.

“The common people always are bearing the burden…for the government, which continues splurging without second thoughts into excessively overdone Olympic preparations,” Belyaeva-Standen said, closing her presentation.

Daniel Schlafly, a professor of History, next touched on Russian President Vladmir Putin’s aim to demonstrate a united and powerful Russia through the games. He examined the opening ceremony, stating that it was a demonstration of Putin’s tailored trajectory of Russian history as a united nation. He noted the absence of Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, in addition to a lack of attention paid to the religious aspects of Russian history. Schlafly made the point that the ceremony’s concentration on great Russian figures in the history of art and science were brought in to support the message of talent and community.

Ellen Carnaghan, a professor in the Political Science department, closed the roundtable with a discussion of the obviously political nature of the Olympics. She focused on the aspects of the winter games that demonstrated Russia’s autocratic tendencies.

Carnaghan first brought attention to the corruption in Russia that helped to make Sochi the most expensive Olympics in history, stating that estimates claim only four percent of the widely-reported $50 billion cost of the Olympics was provided by private funding. In her final remarks, Carnaghan turned her attention to what she called a systematic tactic to silence opposition by “making protests appear pointless.”

This tactic was at play in the Olympics in the form of a “protest zone,” a small park, limited to 100 people in which protest was permitted.