As far back as the 1936 Berlin Games, the Olympics have come with a political sideshow. If you’ve ever read a history book, you can probably guess the issue that year was the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jewish athletes. Despite a boycott movement, Americans traveled to Germany and competed in what were believed to be the greatest Olympics ever to be held up to that point.
Prior to the 2008 Beijing Games, China’s government was widely criticized for human rights violations, the occupation of Tibet and air pollution (many athletes even wore masks when they landed in protest). Yet six years later, the legacy of the Beijing Games is not the controversy over these issues. Rather, they are remembered for Michael Phelps’ record-breaking performance, the USA basketball “Redeem Team” and the aesthetic extravaganza that was the opening ceremonies which many believe will never be surpassed.
The 2014 Sochi Games were no different. First, there was criticism over the International Olympic Committee’s selection of Sochi, considering its geography. Due to its warm-weather climate and its proximity to Ossetia (which has recently had political and military strife with Russia), many questioned if holding Winter Games there was logistically possible and if so, would athletes and spectators be safe from acts of terror?
Furthermore, there was controversy over the Russian government’s stance on homosexuality. Videos of people being brutally beaten for being gay caused public outcry, and the gay propaganda laws left many athletes fearful of being arrested.
Aside from these major issues, there were problems with living accommodations. Drinking water was more bronze than the third-place medals; plumbing problems left athletes unable to flush their toilets, and bobsledder Johnny Quinn had to break a door down after being locked inside his bathroom. Moreover, Sochi has a stray-dog problem which was solved by poisoning the canines.
Nevertheless, all of this socio-political unrest was moved to the back burner as soon as competition began. Indeed, the 2014 Sochi Games will be remembered for T.J. Oshie putting the U.S. men’s hockey team on his back in the epic shootout against Russia (I realize the team disappointed in failing to medal, but Oshie became an American hero overnight). Jonathan Quick deserves the same admiration for his stellar play.
I will remember these Games for Steve Holcomb, who ended a 62-year medal drought for Americans in the two-man bobsled, and Erin Hamlin, the first American woman ever to medal in luge. Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson also brought home gold for America in snowboard slopestyle.
Among other nations’ athletes, I will remember the Scandinavian supremacy in cross-country skiing (especially the Norwegians) and the Dutch domination in speed skating. 15-year-old Russian ice skater Yulia Lipnitskaya also emerged as one of the stars of these Games.
All of the criticisms and unrest prior to the Games was totally justified. But when it comes to the Olympics, our primary concern is the competition itself and which country’s anthem will be playing at the medal ceremony.
The torch relay has become one of the most iconic traditions of the Olympic Games, a symbol of global unity as the Olympic flame passes through numerous countries on its odyssey to the host city. The place where this practice originated? Berlin, 1936. That’s right. One of the most prominent traditions of the Olympic Games originated from arguably the most controversial host.
I wonder what we’ll take away from Russia?