by Walter Brasch
For Vladimir Putin, the winter Olympics is not about sports or international camaraderie. It’s a carefully orchestrated propaganda opportunity to try to showcase the nation’s athletes and show the world a Russia that, even with its great culture and arts, may exist only in the imaginations of those who believe in restoring the country’s previous grandeur.
Sochi itself is not typical city for a winter Olympics. It’s a sub-tropical city of about 340,000, located along the Black Sea. Its selection by Russia was to let the world believe that the country in winter is not Siberia but a resort, suitable for tourists.
Under Putin’s personal direction, Russia spent more than 1.8 trillion rubles (the equivalent of about $51 billion U.S.) to build the Olympic village, with its buildings, stadiums, and infrastructure. This is a greater cost than all previous winter Olympics combined. It also includes cost over-runs and various forms of corruption. But, disregard that—that’s an internal problem. Here are a few of the real problems.
Russia has had more than seven years to prepare for this Olympics. But by the first day of competition, some of roads were unfinished, water was undrinkable in many of the newly-built hotels, and the safety of some of the Olympics courses was still in question.
Add to those problems the possibility of a terrorist attack. The Caucasus Emirate is a loosely-knit group who suffered human rights abuses when Russia invaded Chechnya twice during the 1990s. A militant wing has devolved into an Islamist terrorist network that wishes to establish fundamentalist religious law. More than 100,000 military, police, and security forces surround the Olympics. But if an attack will occur, it could possibly be elsewhere or in the transportation system. Because of the threat, airlines flying into Russia have increased security measures, and numerous travel agencies have warned their customers about conditions in Russia, and have even suggested against traveling to the Olympics.
It’s doubtful any threats will come from stray dogs. But, Russian officials believe that strays can detract from the Olympics. Their solution is to kill the strays.
The Russians have no plans to kill gays. However, Putin despises homosexuals, erroneously believes that gays and pedophiles are linked, and pushed through laws that prohibit public displays of affection by gays or communications to minors about homosexuality—unless it is to advise them that a gay lifestyle is an abomination that must not be allowed. The Sochi mayor proudly, if stupidly, says no gays live in his city. World leaders and athletes threatened to boycott the Olympics. President Obama’s decision not to attend, but to send an official delegation that includes gays, is a moment of diplomatic brilliance.
For a couple of weeks, Putin has reduced his homophobic hatred, and says he welcomes all people—gay or straight—as long as they don’t talk about homosexuality.
The 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi bears a slight resemblance to another Olympics, this one in Berlin in 1936.
For Hitler, the Olympics was an opportunity to show the emergence of a great country, humiliated by the loss in what was later to be known as World War I. German architecture, engineering, and construction assured state-of-the-arts facilities, completed on time.
But the Olympics was also a forum for Hitler to try to show the greatness and purity of the Aryan race. The Olympics, Hitler believed, would highlight the German strength; to that end, he declared, supported by millions of his countrymen, that no Jews or Blacks, even world-class athletes, would be allowed to be on the German Olympics team. To make sure there would be no dissent, he also ordered hundreds of Gypsies to be incarcerated for the duration of the games.
Many world leaders and athletes, among them New York Gov. Al Smith, a Roman Catholic who had faced bigotry in the U.S. during his campaign for the presidency in 1928, threatened to boycott the Olympics. The American Olympic Committee, led by an anti-Semitic Avery Brundage, vigorously argued that politics should not be a part of a sports competition. Besides, he argued, Hitler assured him there would be no discrimination against Jews and Blacks. During the Olympics, America’s governing body pulled two Jews from a relay race, possibly to appease the man who believed in a thousand year Reich with only Aryans as leaders of the “master race,” and that all future Olympics after 1940 would be in Germany.
Like Putin decades later, for the two weeks of the Olympics Hitler was pleasant with journalists, world leaders, athletes, and fans; he reduced his hate speech, while increasing his praise of his county’s athletes and their culture.
But by the end of the summer games, it was performance that dominated the propaganda. Seven of the 18 American Black Olympians won 14 medals, highlighted by Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in track. Thirteen Jews, 12 from Europe, also won medals. Samuel Balter, an American Jew, was part of the basketball team that won gold.
With the Summer Olympics over, Hitler again ordered anti-Semitic banners raised, and again encouraged German newspapers and radio stations to spread vicious attacks upon Jews, Gypsies, union labor, and gays. Within two years, Hitler had determined his “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”—and the world, including the United States, just watched.
Vladimir Putin may not have a “final solution” to what he sees as a “gay problem.” But his hate—and the use of a sophisticated propaganda machine to showcase his country—suggest he did not learn the lessons of almost seven decades earlier.
[Dr. Brasch has been a journalist more than four decades. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth exploration of the issues surrounding horizontal fracturing in the country.]