Thursday, February 06, 2014

Understanding Russia’s Olympic Moment

By Chriss Street

The ancient Olympic Games that ran from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. were religious events used to glorify the relationships between Greek city-states.  Once they resumed in 1896, the Olympics became a celebration of the nation-state, with athletes explicitly connected to national identity, and a way to win glory for one's nation. The goal was to give an alternative for countries to showcase their national pride and compete for dominance without going to war.
Those who host the Olympics use the event as an opportunity to show their worth and shape global perceptions of their country.  In 1936, Hitler used the games to advertise Germany's achievements, and in 2008, China used them to show off its arrival as a modern nation.  Now Russia is hosting the games, and it will surely try to keep the momentum of its past decade of success going.
When the Soviet Union hosted the Games in 1980, the United States under President Jimmy Carter led a coalition to boycott as a protest against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott embarrassed the Soviet Union, and it is something that still shadows Russia today. To Moscow, it was as if the world was rejecting the Soviet Union's standing in the world.  A decade later the Soviet Union financially collapsed and in the chaos that followed over half of the USSR territory broke free of today’s Russia.  The instability tore the country apart. Russia seemed to lose its national identity, with most Russians unsure how to view their own country or if it would ever recover.
All that changed after 1999 under the current regime of President Vladimir Putin took office in 1999.  Coming into power in Russia, Putin rallied much of the country behind him, sparking a massive wave of nationalism centering on his pledges to bring Russia back to strength and stability.  Putin recentralized the Russian economy, giving the country its current financial security.  For the most part, he consolidated the social and political spheres under Kremlin influence.  And the Kremlin strengthened the security apparatuses -- both FSB and military -- to regain control over the secessionist and militant elements in Russia, as well as to shape the region beyond.
But Russia's path back to prominence has been rocky. To accomplish all that it has, the Kremlin has had to use an iron fist at home and has forcefully shaped its neighborhood. Naturally, many inside and outside Russia have criticized some of its recent policies.
Criticisms aside, with the Sochi Olympics Russia is celebrating its transformation from a boycotted nation in 1980 and a chaotic state in the 1990s to a strong and stable country today that is able to influence its region and the world.

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