The controversial Sochi Olympics have not inspired the feelings of global camaraderie and sportsmanship usually associated with the Games. If anything, this year’s event has drudged up memories of the protests over the 2010 Vancouver Games. Four years later, the Games are situated in a completely different political regime, but with reminiscent social upheaval. Regardless of the setting, the Olympics consistently incite political and social unrest that runs parallel to enhanced patriotism.
Participation in the Games is as much a political statement as it is about Canadian athleticism. A strong showing at the Olympics is a metaphorical expression regarding a country’s character and its ability to meet and overcome challenges. By focussing on Canada’s Olympic spirit both in Vancouver and Sochi, the concerns of many Canadians are put on hold to focus on the competition. This neglect, however, pushes these groups to the edge, boiling over into protests or public outcry. How important are these attitudes when hosting the sometimes cumbersome event? And when participating in other countries, does a mismatch in sociopolitical values or policy cramp the fun of the Olympic craze?
Back in 2010, the dark side of the Vancouver Games meant that local Aboriginal communities saw their lands taken in favour of new sport infrastructure, and environmental groups were disappointed with broken promises. The Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) publicly committed to establishing unprecedented Aboriginal participation in the Games, but quickly came under fire for pursuing their goal through shallow techniques. The VANOC commercialized traditional Aboriginal symbols, such as including the Inukshuk in promotional marketing, which misrepresented the diversity of Canada’s Aboriginals and the traditional meaning of the symbol. Some Indigenous peoples in Vancouver considered aspects the land use by the International Olympic Committee to be unjust, and and accused the Games of influencing the 47 land claim negotiations that were currently under way. Environmental activists were also unhappy with the Vancouver Games due to the Athlete’s Village, which was partly constructed on land previously reserved for a subsidized housing project.
Rather than serving as a moment for national unity, the 2010 Games showed a polarized country. For some they were a source of harmony, while for others the Games overshadowed their experiences and opinions. This dichotomy illuminates the enduring policy implications that can result from the pursuit of short-term international recognition through the Olympic hosting experience.
The troubles plaguing the Sochi Games are not hard to pinpoint, with almost all Western Olympic coverage garnished with commentary on the political and social instability in Russia. Most notably, organizations like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign have called out President Putin’s corrupt version of democracy in the conflict-ridden country, where anti-gay legislation was passed in early 2013. The country has also experienced boycotts from animal rights groups and environmentalists, and the Games have required enhanced security, which has driven up already exuberant costs.
Critics of the Sochi Games have pointed out that most Canadian Olympic advertisers have not spoken out publicly against the anti-gay crackdown in Russia, compared to more vocal American advertisers like Google. President Obama’s decision to appoint three openly gay delegates to the national roster also sent a strong message to Putin, which may well have been in response to growing Russia-American tensions coming out of the Syrian crisis. The Canadian response, however, has been lukewarm, and limited to speculation over Stephen Harper’s absence at the Opening Ceremonies as part of a global protest over Putin’s LGBT legislation. The Canadian Olympic Committee has been hesitant to take a stance on the issues, placing that responsibility back on Canada’s political powerhouses to speak for the people.
While there remains clear mismatch between The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the LGBT community from discrimination in Section 15, and Russia’s anti-gay policies, formally boycotting the policy choices of a neighbour while under the microscope of Olympic media is difficult. The host country is inviting an extensive global guest list onto their soil, and party etiquette is clear that you never insult a host while in their home. The Sochi Olympics are still very much underway, so it remains to be seen whether Canada will speak up as the Games come to a close. If history is any indication, Canadian delegates will live up to the Canadian reputation as apologetic and agreeable, particularly in comparison to our southern neighbours.
The Vancouver and Sochi Olympics have not been Canada’s most socially responsible, but the majority of the Canadian public still seems focused on the fun of the Games. Thanks to massive advertising partners like Coca-Cola, Molson, and McDonalds, the notion of the ideal Olympics is still very much alive. Up to this point, the positivity surrounding the Games has swept issues of LGBT and protestor rights under the rug, to be addressed–or not–when things calm down.
There may be untapped political opportunity that comes with speaking up against the injustices of an Olympic host nation, but there is also caution regarding the safety of Canadian athletes and spectators. Making a global statement always comes with risks of safety and security, but politicians may still have the chance to bolster support at home by championing our morals on the world stage.
Deanna Veltri is currently a Master’s Student at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from McGill University. Her policy interests include gender policy and health policy.