Olympic athletes are a rare commodity. You may bridle at the word ‘commodity’, but that is what they have become: mobile billboards for their sponsor; running, jumping, skating, swimming advertisements for the superiority of their country’s political system.
The Olympics is war by proxy, and the athletes are our soldiers. And what they ‘fight’ for is not little disks of fake gold, ersatz silver, or painted bronze. They fight for the values of their home countries (the product associations are secondary).
Country X winning more medals than Country Y means X has superior standards and virtues, regardless of how those results are achieved. Or the toll it takes on the individuals involved.
This in turn puts a huge burden on the shoulders of our medal winners, for they must be seen to be clean, wholesome, drug and scandal free. In Australia’s case, and especially in Putin’s kleptocratic gangster state, they ought also to be a rainbow of diversity and multiculturalism.
It remains to be seen if any Australian athlete at Sochi lives up to this ideal by speaking out against Russia’s homophobic laws, raising a rainbow-gloved fist on the winners podium, or, following Cathy Freeman’s example, takes a victory lap with both an Australian and a rainbow flag.
None of them cared enough to risk their careers for their LGBTI citizens, and boycott the Games. Few have risked the ire of the AOC or their sponsors by speaking out – yet. Fair enough. They are entitled to put their careers first if they wish. But . . .
As a kind of excuse, before the Games, there was much talk of how it would be far better if everyone took part in the show, and demonstrated their support while the spotlight was on them, in Sochi.
So far, we’ve seen a glove with a unicorn on it.
I know this is Russia,and it’s early days, but does anyone seriously think Putin will drag an athlete off the podium or out of a press conference? That a national Olympic committee, or even the IOC, would be so crass and stupid as to expel them from the Games?
Well, given past form, maybe that last is a bit of a risk. But you take risks in your sport every day. And once you’ve got your damned bit of coloured tin and ‘fulfilled your dream’, this is one you can afford to take. Plus (if you’re still utterly self-centred) remember it could actually do your career a whole heap of good. Think of the TV! Oprah! Entertainment Tonight! The cover of Time! And it could save some lives into the bargain.
There is still time for athletes from all the civilised countries to summon up their courage and be true ambassadors for freedom. But given the signs so far, I’m not holding my breath. This is the generation that thinks activism means clicking Like of Facebook, or signing an AllOut petition. Not what is really needed: raising a fist or a flag on the world stage. In Sochi.