Olympics and the Sochi Spirit

London May 2011 020The Winter games are on today in Sochi, Russia.  A tropical Black Sea resort area flanked by the mountains which define the Caucasus is the unlikely venue for 13.000 athletes from 200 nations, playing in 33 sports and some 400 events.  I assume there will be a camera or three trained on every snow board flip and skater triple jump, each vertiginous ski jump and scintillating curling thrust.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin created the games-of-the-modern era in 1896. The first games were held in Athens for a modest 241 athletes from 14 nations.  The first winter games were held in Chamonix, France in 1924.  A millennium and a half separate these modern games from their model, the games-of-the-ancient-era.

The contest held in antiquity began in 778 before the common era.  The Greek speakers were politically divided into separate small city-states which competed with one another for resources and for trade.  Each city state, each polis, sent athletes, male freemen, to the proving grounds of Olympus to participate in running and chariot races, boxing, wrestling, long jumps, javelin and discus throws.  The tradition endured more that 1100 years.

There is an aspect of the ancient Olympics which made them notable, besides the olive leaf crowned winners, and that is the Olympic truce.  The Greeks of old were a pugnacious lot.  To travel through a rival polis was dangerous: dress, accent or customs could arouse hostility. During the gathering of the Olympic games, however, peace reigned.  Our association of the olive branch with peace is still extant.

Can we hope for an Olympic Peace in Sochi?  Chechnya and Dagestan are two of a number of small regions in the Caucasus which see themselves in an adversarial relationship with Russia.  Once they were part of the Soviet Union.  Other Caucasus groups like the Georgians, Azerbaijani and Armenians formed new, independent states.  Not so the dozens of small splinter groups which now form an irredentist nexus of volatile and hostile people in Russia.

The Boston marathon bombers had their roots in Dagestan.  Suicide bombers, subway bombers, and school bombers in Russia also identified themselves as rebels from this region just north of Sochi.  The ‘black widows,” potential suicide bombers, are the widows of men killed as terrorists  by Russian police or soldiers .

The Olympic Peace was broken decisively during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.  On September 5th, five members of the Palestinian group “Black September” murdered eleven Israeli athletes.  This event haunts us still.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, has promised a ring of steel around the Sochi games.  But what we really need is an Olympic Peace.  Can foreigners travel in safety to the site of the Olympic games?  Can hostilities be suspended?  The hostilities that need to be muted are not just Chechen rebels staying their hand.  There has been an upsurge of old Cold War tensions as well.  Russia has become a second tier nation and is smarting from lowered prestige.

This is the hour of the athletes, not the politicians, This is the moment when we look at personal stories and achievements. The petty insults of highlighting an unfinished hotel room, publicizing the round-up of stray dogs are unbecoming.  There are great stories in the Olympics and they are international stories of young men and women from around the world who deserve to carry the olive branch.

Bobsled team from Jamaica!  It’s back! It’s the better story.



About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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