Games Won’t Heal International Rivalries

by Tyler Murphy
Columnist

Since their inception in 1896, the Olympic Games were meant to serve as an opportunity for the international community to set aside its differences and engage in friendly competitiveness absent from the political strife and turmoil gripping many parts of the world. Indeed, the Vancouver Olympics are being presented not only as Canada’s moment to shine but as a stage on which nations like North Korea, China, Russia and the United States can stand as equals, not enemies.

Animosity boiling between the United States and Russia, however, spilled over into this year’s games. This suggests that Vancouver 2010 is trekking the same path laid by many of its predecessors – to serve as a stage for bombastic displays of patriotism and intercountry rivalries.

The conflict fomented when American figure skater Evan Lysacek narrowly defeated Russian skater Yevgeny Plushenko in a dramatic upset, ending the country’s dominance in the event from the past five games. Needless to say, the Russians didn’t react positively to this U.S. coup for the gold medal. Lysacek, they argued, took the easy way out with a “safe” and “outdated” performance – no comparison with Plushenko’s complex choreography. Unlike Lysacek, Plushenko incorporated the highly demanding quadruple jump, in which the skater spins four times in the air before landing.

At the podium, Plushenko indicated to the world his feelings – and those of his nation – by briefly taking his position on the gold medal platform before stepping to the lower silver position. Even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in on the controversy.

In a personal telegram to Plushenko, Putin congratulated him by saying, “Your silver is worth gold. You were able to overcome all the obstacles in your brave comeback and performed the most accomplished program on the Vancouver ice.”

In the post-event press conference, Plushenko agreed with Putin’s assessment and did not mask his true feelings.

“For someone to stand on top of the podium with the gold medal around his neck by just doing triple jumps,” Plushenko said, “to me it’s not progress, it’s a regress. … Just doing nice transitions and being artistic is not enough because figure skating is a sport, not a show.”

Does this controversy threaten the stated mission and goals of the Olympic Games? Certainly this type of conflict does not foster international cooperation and understanding. The point is that this is not the first time the Olympics have been marked by this type of rivalry, and it won’t be the last.

Indeed, the Olympics have served as demonstrations of nationalism almost since its inception over a century ago. In 1906, Irishman Peter O’Connor competed on the English team but, to affirm his heritage, shinnied the flagpole during the medal ceremony and proudly waved his Irish flag. The 1936 Berlin games were used by Hitler and the Nazis as a presentation for their ideology. In 1980, the United States and other Western powers boycotted the Moscow Olympics in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries reciprocated by boycotting the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

So the Olympic Games being used as a stage for political disagreement is not a new phenomenon. The pride and patriotism that surround Olympic competition make it difficult for countries to deconstruct their animosities. If anything, introducing sport into the equation only affirms existing animosities. As both the current games and Olympic history reveal, we have yet to achieve the stated goal of the Olympic Games. The current conflict between Russia and the United States, then, cannot be seen as a failure of the Vancouver Olympics. It will simply serve as another notable international rivalry recorded in the annals of Olympic history.

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