Why it’s important we keep watching Sochi

Joe Whitwell 8 February 2014

I am going to watch as much of the Sochi Winter Olympics as I can. I know what is going on in Russia, know that people are being persecuted for an aspect of themselves which they can not change and knowing the turmoil the games have caused for the people of Sochi; but I am going to watch nonetheless.

The 2012 Olympics were London’s games, or perhaps Britain’s games. I think that anybody who wanted to, could take part in the event. The spirit of the games was something we could all tap into.

But Sochi isn’t like that; the 2014 Winter Olympics are not Sochi’s games. These games are not even Russia’s games, but Putin’s Games. Every significant decision bears his signature. From the moment he turned up speaking French in Guatemala City in to seal the deal in 2007, 2014 has been about Putin showing his 'New Russia' to the world.

This hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Unfortunately for Putin, if you welcome the international media spotlight, you have to be prepared for it shining in places you do not want illuminated. This spotlight has revealed some of the key issues dogging 'New Russia', from the incomplete resort infrastructure to the human rights abuses, and what was conceived as a PR crusade has already turned farcical.

Because I am younger than the generation that fought for their survival against HIV, I have never known the LGBT community so vocal on one topic, or so resolute in condemnation of one specific problem. More significantly, I don’t think I have ever seen the wider media more supportive of an LGBT cause. In the most twisted of ways, Putin has probably done more to help the plight of LGBT people than anybody else: he has helped a fractured community recalibrate.

I will be watching for more than the warm glow that this knowledge gives me, however. I will mainly be watching because I have lived and worked in ski resorts. I know the lifetime of training most of these athletes have put in. I have seen national ski teams training kids no older than 7. I have also seen the trouble future-British-athletes go through to compete in a winter Olympics, which usually involves being uprooted from where they live to train in the Alps.

A politician whose domestic policy sets my skin on edge is not going to stop me watching the highlight of these people’s lives. I’m not going to let him detract from what these games are meant to be about: sporting excellence. Athletes cannot pick the games they compete in, just as members of the Russian LGBT community cannot pick their home nation any more than their sexuality.

As a spectator, I can choose to support my team and the whole Olympic movement generally. I can do that knowing that Putin will not come out of this looking particularly great; that he has galvanised support for the LGBT cause; that #sochiproblems or #hunted won’t stop trending on twitter and that the intensity of the spotlight will only increase as the days go on.

I want the games to be a success, primarily for the athletes but more broadly  – it’s almost  a form of doublethink – for anybody other than Putin. 

So I ask you to not boycott these Olympics. Watch as people perform beyond what they thought themselves capable; watch as twitter and Buzzfeed (and even the Google Doodle) ruin Putin's propaganda. Maybe even watch as a LGBT athlete takes to the podium, however slight the chance of that happening. We owe it to any athlete that can stand up against the backdrop of a regime making a political scapegoat out of a section of it’s own people. I will be watching for the love of good sport, to mark an odd moment in history and just maybe to see the Jesse Owens moment that these games – and this movement – need.