As Russia prepares to host the 22nd Winter Olympics next week, the adage about not “mixing sports with politics” is making the rounds in the media. In reality, however, sport—as indeed other areas of human activity—is linked to and affected by politics. And the Sochi games are no exception. Why would President Vladimir Putin spend over 60 billion US dollars hosting the games if it were not in the hope of enhancing his political fortunes at home and the status of Russia abroad?
The Sochi games represent a political choreography designed to mark Russia’s return to center stage in international life.
In a sense, the entire Olympics tradition has been linked to political calculations from its beginnings in ancient Greece when Athens used the occasion to outshine rival city states. Having conquered the Balkans, the Romans replaced the Olympics with their own games as a sign of their supremacy. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion it stifled sporting traditions. Attention to the human body could not divert attention from the sufferings of Christ.
In modern times, the idea of reviving the Olympics found an echo among English Hellenophiles who helped the Greeks win independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. However, it was not until 1866 that what was presented as the new “Olympian Games” took place in Crystal Palace in London. The aim was to underline Great Britain’s position as the global superpower of the time.
Political calculations also played a part in the launching of the modern Olympics by the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin in the 1880s. France was still smarting from a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians and the loss of the twin provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Coubertin thought that the Olympic movement would re-inject the French with a new martial spirit, toning down their defeatist mood. Thus, he often used martial terms. He said: “The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well,” a sentence pregnant with warlike terminology.
The most glaring example of using sport for political purposes came in 1936 when Hitler organized the summer Olympics in Berlin. Having re-imagined Germans as the “Aryan race,” he hoped to demonstrate their superiority over other “races,” especially “subhuman” Jews, Gypsies, Blacks and Slavs. Twelve years later it was the turn of Great Britain to organize the London Olympics, reasserting the superiority of the victors in the war against Hitler’s “Aryan supermen.”
The Olympics also allowed some losers in the Second Word War—notably Italy and Japan—to reclaim a place in the new world order. Post-Mao China used the Beijing Olympics for the same purpose, ending decades as a pariah. At times, the Olympics are used to signal one power’s anger against another. In 1980, US President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics because he was unable, or unwilling, to do anything to stop the Soviet Union from conquering Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets repaid the compliment by boycotting the Olympics in Los Angeles.
But let us return to Sochi.
Putin is desperate to regain at least part of the prestige the defunct Soviet Union had during the Cold War. If he succeeds in delivering a well-organized Olympics he will be able to claim that the chaotic phase of post-Soviet history is over, with a new Russia capable of developing great ambitions.
The fact that the games are being held in Sochi could also help Putin reassert Russia’s position in the Caucasus and the Black Sea. Russia has already set up military bases in neighboring Abkhazia, an autonomous republic that Putin snatched from Georgia in 2008.
Putin also hopes that the Sochi show will convince everyone that he has succeeded in breaking the back of Islamist terrorism rooted in the Muslim-majority highlands of the northern Caucasus, notably Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia.
However, the exercise may also draw attention to the bloody history of Russian expansionism in the Caucasus and the wars the tsars fought for almost two centuries against the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and a dozen Muslim khanates.
Originally known as Ubikhya, Sochi was founded in 1672 as a small capital for a branch of the Circassian Muslim tribes and remained an almost exclusively Muslim town until 1864 when the Russians managed to finally crush the Muslim tribes. Having driven the Iranians out of Georgia in 1802 and the Ottomans out of the coastal region in 1829, Russia organized the first major ethnic cleansing exercise in modern history with Sochi and its environs bearing the brunt. Between 1864 and 1870 more than 90 percent of the area’s Muslim inhabitants were either massacred or forced into collective migration into the Ottoman Empire, an event that entered history as “the Circassian genocide.” The Ottomans re-settled many of them in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.
Over the following century, Russia repopulated the territory with settlers from Belarus, Ukraine, Finland and Christians from Georgia and Armenia. Today, Muslims number around 20,000, mostly from the Shasug Sunni community, and account for four percent of the population. Even under Communism, Sochi managed to keep 36 churches with Muslims allowed a single semi-derelict mosque. (In 2008, a second mosque was built with money from the United Arab Emirates.)
Stalin loved Sochi and built a sumptuous dacha there. Here he entertained distinguished guests, among them Princess Ashraf, the twin sister of the late Shah of Iran, in 1945.
With its subtropical climate, magnolias and decorative palm trees, and a backdrop of snow-covered peaks, Sochi always reminded me of Caspian resorts such as Ramsar in Iran. The impression was reinforced by the food, mostly Iranian-style kebabs prepared by Armenians and Georgians, and the fruit—the variety of which made the average Russian green with envy. As visitors in the 1970s, we always assumed that almost anyone in Sochi might be a KGB agent. Today, they would be agents of Putin’s FSB.
At the time the place was full of apparatchiki, including many exiled foreign Communist leaders, some from Iran and Arab countries. They benefited from annual all-expenses-paid holidays to do a bit of fast living lubricated with Georgian wine, Armenian brandy and Russian vodka. However, few would venture up the mountains in the Roza Khutor and Krasnaya Polyana resorts, some 12 miles away, where this year’s competitions will take place.
A political exercise, the Sochi Olympics cannot but remind the world of a dark page in Russian imperialistic history. That, however, should not prevent anyone from hoping for the games to be a success. Its pride wounded, Russia is still in a mood of self-doubt and needs to be reassured. A reassured Russia is more likely to live in peace with the rest of the world, helping end the tragic experience of a region that has been a victim of war and imperialist greed for centuries.