Amy Bass on the Corrupt, Troubling and Fabulous Sochi Winter Olympics

Amy Bass

Amy Bass knows the Olympic Games.  For as long as I have known her she has supervised the research room for NBC’s Olympic coverage.  In fact, in 2012 she won an Emmy award for her work.  And did I mention she has published extensively on the cultural history of sports and teaches history and directs the honors program at the College of New Rochelle?  (Some of you may remember her from part 24 of our “So What Can You Do With a History Major? series).

Amy is not in Sochi for the Olympics this year (or at least she does not seem to be–I could be wrong), but she has shared her thoughts on the 2014 games at Slate. Here is a taste:

The people who demanded a boycott of Sochi can make a decent case, but they forget that the Olympics have never been a freezing of world politics, but, rather, an opportunity to cut through the horror with moments of greatness. It is critical to remember that alongside dazzling pageantry and stunning athletic spectacle, the Olympics have always provided insight, good and bad, into the world we live in. It is historically shortsighted to assume that Sochi is the most politically offensive and mosteconomically corrupt Olympic host with the scariest terrorist potential, because that grants reprieves to an awful lot of countries and leaders (hello, Hitler!) and removes Sochi from the broad landscape that makes the Olympics the complex, horrible, elitist, and wonderful global event that sparks debate, awareness, and, sometimes, action.
Inherently contradictory, the Olympics get to transcend everything until they don’t. It is naive to think that sport is above politics, that any kind of level playing field exists, or that sport allows the world to put its problems on hold. The narrative of peaceful competition is disrupted time and again, because the Olympics are inherently political, in ways that are overt, such as the black power protest by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, and nuanced, such as Czech gymnast Vera Cáslavská lowering her gaze when the Soviet anthem playedduring her medal ceremonies at the same Games.
The example of Smith and Carlos is often cited in the lead-up to Sochi, as many observers wonder what athletes might do to protest Russia’s hateful homophobic policies. But Sochi deserves a more thorough context. Not since Berlin in 1936—“Hitler’s Games”—have the Olympics been such a one-man show.