On 16 October, before assuming the position of Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili informed the society with his signature style and characteristic confidence that Georgia would not boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014: “We welcome holding of the event and Georgia must take part in it and we, as a good neighbor, will make sure the Olympics is conducted peacefully and without any troubles.”
Exactly ten days later – and, presumably, acting entirely independently of Ivanishvili’s statement – a group of sixteen Canadian and French university professors published an open letter in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Titled “2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: We Appeal to Boycott It,” the open letter in part reads:
“Pretending to be the defender of ‘the Olympic ideal’ and ‘friendship between nations,’ the IOC [International Olympic Committee] yet again dishonors itself by cooperating with the regime of no principles, represented by Vladimir Putin, which does not respect either human rights or other democratic freedoms.
“If anything, the war that Russia started against Georgia on the opening day of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing – which, as Putin confessed, was planned well in advance – should have provided sufficient motivation for annulling the award to Sochi of the right to host the Olympics. Nothing of that kind happened, though. The IOC preferred to turn a blind eye to the violent actions and provocations of the ex-KGB lieutenant-colonel and lauder of the ‘vertical of power’ of Soviet vintage.
“Russia continues its military occupation of Georgian territories (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and the megalomaniac dream of Russian nomenclature still remains the reconstruction of zones of influence of the former Soviet empire through the use of its natural gas as economic blackmail and its army to intimidate….
“By selecting Sochi, situated close to Georgia’s border, Moscow asserts that the Caucasus is its sovereign sphere and that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are its protectorates.”
The authors of the open letter then go on to list alleged war crimes, criminality and acts of aggression by the Putin regime in the recent past: the war in Chechnya involving massive shelling, killings and rape of the Chechen population; control of public opinion in “Russia itself” and application of extremely brutal methods for oppression of political opposition; the assassination of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaia; witch-hunting initiated by the Russian Orthodox Church and imprisonment of the young performance artists of the punk-rock band, Pussy Riot. The authors further note that xenophobia and ethnic intolerance are pervading the society inside the country while, in the international arena, the Kremlin is reinforcing the “criminal regime” of Basher al-Assad, etcetera.
By entrusting the hosting of Olympic Games to such a regime, the IOC contravenes not only principles of “peace,” “fraternity” and “solidarity” enshrined in the Charter of Olympics, but at the same time is a conscious co-participant in the geostrategic propagandist operation inherited from “national-Sovietism,” allege the outraged professors who authored the open letter. “The IOC hierarchies who, in concert with Russians, affirm that ‘sports must be separated from politics’ are extreme hypocrites because each act of awarding the right to host Olympics is a political act in itself.” Furthermore, the authors point out that protests have repeatedly been voiced against holding the Olympic Games in Sochi and they quote the 2008 statement of Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg that he deems it unacceptable to conduct the festival of peace and sports in the neighborhood of the place where “people were massacred and aggressive war was conducted.”
The signatories of the letter leave no doubt that they feel the International Olympic Committee is without any moral right to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi:
“We appeal to democratic associations, the National Assembly of France and parliamentary groups of the Council of Europe, to demand that conduct of the Sochi Olympic Games in Putin’s Russia be annulled in favor of a country that respects the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and democratic values.
“We also appeal to the athletes of all nations to refuse to participate in the mise en scène planned in Sochi and to speak out loudly against that. And, finally, we appeal to journalists to denounce disinformation and censorship by the ‘information services’ of the Kremlin.”
Two years ago, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared that, in due time, he would support holding the Olympic Games in Sochi because he believed that “would help us avoid those negative tendencies which were already apparent back then, especially toward Abkhazia, i.e. our territory.” That was Saakashvili’s expressed hope back in 2007, when Sochi was awarded the right to host the Olympics. Naturally, the August 2008 war fundamentally changed Tbilisi’s strategic approaches toward Russia.
Since then, the issue of Georgia’s participation in the Sochi Olympics has been an issue of considerable debate. That controversy is likely to intensify as the year 2014 approaches. What is the main argument of advocates for participation? Perhaps, it is that sports and politics must be separated and that we have no moral right to prevent our athletes from participating in such an important international forum. Yet another argument might also be that we are now in the process of trying to improve our relationship with Russia and boycotting the Games in Sochi would not be conducive to that. Proponents will probably also say that because Georgia, for sure, will be unable to convince other countries to join in the boycott, the country will end up standing alone and looking ridiculous.
However, historical experience has shown that sports and politics have always been interconnected – and there is no sign that will change anytime in the foreseeable future. The world’s greatest sports competition has never been devoid of political context or controversy. History provides ample proof of that. In 1956, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted the Melbourne Olympics over the Suez Crisis and military operations conducted against Egypt by France, Britain and Israel. China also refused to participate in the 1956 Games because Taiwan was allowed to participate. More interestingly, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland all chose to boycott the Melbourne Olympics because of the Soviet presence at the Games in the same year that the Soviet army crushed the Hungarian Revolution.
When U.S. President Jimmy Carter delivered an ultimatum to the Soviet Union in 1980 to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan or else face a boycott of the Moscow Games scheduled for later that same year, he, presumably, did not entertain any illusion that the Kremlin would heed that ultimatum. The U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics was supported by as many as fifty countries and was an act of protest with strong symbolic resonance against Kremlin propagandizing.
Boycotting the Olympic Games is, first and foremost, a matter of dignity and self-esteem and not a matter of reaping political dividends. Had the Olympics been held in Berlin in 1940 instead of in 1936, can anyone imagine Czechs and Poles paying homage to the Third Reich by participating in the Games? Could athletes of those countries have entertained even the notion of marching in a festive mood at the opening ceremony of the Nazi Olympics in front of Adolph Hitler installed on a raised platform for “honored” guests? And should our athletes march cheerfully in front of Putin and Medvedev installed on a raised platform for “honored” guests inside the Sochi Olympic Stadium, as if nothing had ever happened between our countries?
If one still hears voices saying that skipping the Winter Olympics would be “a heavy blow for the Georgian Olympic movement” – as an advisor to Bidzina Ivanishvili, Gia Volski, proclaimed on 17 October – let us recall that the highest Georgian achievement, since Georgian athletes appeared for the first time ever at the Winter Olympic Games in 1956, was the ninth-place finish of Koba Tsakadze in the 70-meter ski jump at the Sapporo Winter Olympics in 1972. It is very unlikely that any Georgian athlete has even the slightest chance of breaking Koba Tsakadze’s record at the next Winter Olympics.
While Western intellectuals and politicians (such as U.S. Congressmen Allyson Schwartz and Bill Shuster, as early as 15 August 2008, a week after Russia’s invasion of Georgia) speak of the amorality of conducting Olympics in Sochi, the participation of our country in that event would definitely be perceived by our foreign allies as a shameful, dishonorable and senseless act of capitulation.
So why the hell should we give a damn about the Sochi Olympics?