Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Politics no stranger to the Games

By Dmitri Trenin (China Daily) Updated: 2014-02-07 07:56

Politics no stranger to the Games

Modern Olympic Games are never entirely free from politics, but their level of politicization varies. Awarding the games to Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964, and Munich in 1972 was meant to symbolize the post-World War II rehabilitation of the three former Axis powers. The 1988 Games were awarded to Seoul to highlight South Korea's spectacular economic success and encourage its moves toward political democratization. But spikes in tension during the Cold War led to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games by the United States and several other countries and to the reciprocal decision by the Soviet Union and its allies to stay away from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

After the end of the Cold War, there have been no boycotts, but tensions have been palpable. Giving the 2008 Games to Beijing was recognition of China's rise, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and ushered in a global economic power. There was criticism in the West at the time over the state of human rights in China, and the Chinese government's policies in the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions. However, world leaders, including then US president George W. Bush, came for the opening ceremony. China's importance to the world was so great that few politicians thought they could afford to ignore, never mind snub, Beijing.

The current controversy over the Sochi Olympics reflects the problems Russia is now facing in its relations with the United States and Europe. Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012 came as a big disappointment to those in the West who had hoped Russia would gradually liberalize and modernize as it was becoming a de facto associate of the European Union and a junior partner of the US. To their dismay, the mass protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012 did not lead to major political changes in Russia, but rather to a reconsolidation of Putin's governance. Putin's policy of eliminating any sources of foreign influence on Russian domestic politics; terminating or renegotiating agreements between Russia and the US - which had the US as a donor and Russia as aid recipient - and a self-conscious shift toward conservatism in the Kremlin did nothing to gain Russia more sympathy in the West.

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