The Games, the International Community and the Competition for Normative Power.

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are not only a huge sport event, but also an arena for confrontation between competing normative powers whose systems of governance are apparently incompatible: this time different conceptions of liberal and illiberal democracy have been clashing over human rights protection, both in terms of policies and public relations.

During the XXII Olympic Winter Games that are currently taking place in Sochi it is clear that medals are not the only prize at stake. While athletes compete for improving their own world ranking, other games are going on. Reading the Olympics as an occasion for power confrontation among states is quite common. Indeed, the ancient Olympics were one of the few moments in which those actors that were constituting the “international community” of the time would get together: thanks to the Olympic truce – a sacred rule that stopped any fighting between city-states – the five-day games featured not only rough physical competition between athletes, but also religious as well as cultural events and informal politics conducted behind the scenes. City-states' rulers used the peace provided by the truce as a means to make dialogue happen, notwithstanding the differences and the ongoing conflicts between them. Once the Olympic flames in the brazier had extinguished, the athletes joined their respective armies and they often went back to actual fighting, as the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily writes in his Bibliotheca Historica by the mid-first century BC. As the story goes, Heracles started the tradition and consecrated the Games to Zeus: this mythological interpretation reveals the importance of power and politics within the context of a huge athletic-religious event.

Modern Olympics, in Pierre De Coubertin´s view, should have been mainly about sport and educating young generations to a healthy lifestyle, but also about peace, as an ideal to be built with time. In 1935, he summarized his long-term vision as follows: « (…) Olympism is part of History. To celebrate the Olympic Games is to claim to draw one´s inspiration from History. Moreover it is History that can best ensure Peace. To ask different peoples to love one another is mere childishness. To ask them to respect one another is not utopian, but to respect one another they have to know one another. Universal history as it may henceforth be taught, taking into account its exact secular and geographical proportions, is the one true foundation for peace».[1] However, modern Olympic Games have always represented an arena for political confrontation, one of the few occasions in which non-interference in the internal affairs of another State has been challenged by several actors: athletes, citizens´ movements, State officials and international organisations. The Olympic spirit, as a matter of fact, has never been ecumenical: it was never directed at nullifying existing differences of power or erasing political disagreements among governments; quite to the contrary, celebrating the Olympic Games has traditionally permitted to a wide range of concerns to be spelled out and to gain international attention. In his 1992 book Olympic Politics, Christopher R. Hill described how the biggest political conflicts of contemporary history have affected the Games, focusing especially on the four Olympiads held in Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992). Campaigns, boycotts, political statements critically addressing the behaviour of a certain government – particularly in the field of human rights´ protection – have been the norm, rather than the exception.

Recently, the states hosting the event have regularly been made the object of critique for the international community. The normative dimension of these conflicts has been clearly distinguishable and it has been the focus of a lively public debate that has been developed worldwide.

The new “liberal democracy vs (soft) authoritarianism” divide has replaced the Cold-War-flavoured liberalism/socialism divide. The conflict is always about power, but it emerges as a fundamental difference of perspectives about a political regime´s normative power, i.e. the appeal and support that a certain vision of politics and governance can obtain. To be clear, while all the great powers claim to be democratic, the meaning of democracy is fundamentally contested, and the democratic box of constitutional structures can at times hide quite grey democratic contents. Local practices and interpretations can alter the liberal pedigree of democratic institutions. This is a problem for an important part of the international community, while it is considered non-problematic for the governments of so-called illiberal democratic or pseudo-democratic states. The litmus test of these different conceptions of democracy is, again, the protection of human rights – while liberals´ have a broad list, their critics focus on a narrower list and sometimes disregard the universality of these rights in the name of stability or state´s security.

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games, like the XXIX Olympiad held in Beijing during the Summer of 2008, have been very controversial. Like China, Russia is an emerging power – or a re-emerging one, depending on one´s own interpretation of the political continuity between the USSR and the Federal Republic of Russia – and these games represent the first opportunity to open the country to the international community. The Russian government obtained from the International Olympic Committee a great opportunity to maximize its internal and external visibility and to increase its own international prestige. Not surprisingly, on the eve of the 2014 Winter Games the problem of the Russian government´s disputable record in protecting human rights has been aroused by activists and by the media. What is perhaps surprising is that the Russian government has accepted the challenge and it has in several cases granted some unexpected openings to its critics – e.g., the release from prison of some well-known opponents of the government just a few days before the Games´opening ceremony or the embrace between Putin and the homosexual gold medal winner Ireen Wüst. The international community critique has persistently focused on the problem of guaranteeing equal rights to gay people – a critique that, as a matter of fact, could be directed even to some of the champions of liberalism. The insistence on gay and LGBT rights has eclipsed and obscured other key controversial Russian policies that could have been the object of debate, and it has undermined the possibility of starting a multidimensional dialogue on democratic governance.

Before and during the Games, a confrontation between normative powers has been going on, but not all the actors involved have used this opportunity effectively to argue in support of their own positions. On the one hand, the Russian government did so entering the dialogue on LGBT rights. It did so instrumentally, conveniently detracting attention away from other issues, such as the treatment of opposition leaders and movements, the management of secessionist conflicts, the abuse of anti-terrorism measures and the strengthening of media control and censorship policies. Moreover, it turned the question into a discussion about cultural differences. On the other hand, the UN Secretary General and some European leaders went to Sochi and made public declarations diplomatically urging the Russian government to improve its own record in the field of human rights protection. In this context, it is difficult to make sense of the thunderous silence of the EU as a whole and of some of the leaders of the biggest EU countries – notably the UK and Germany, the US. How consistent with the promotion of liberalism and how strategically effective is avoiding confrontation with liberalism´s critics?

Summing up, it is possible to represent the 2014 Winter Olympics in normative terms as an occasion for dialogue, where the host, a powerful actor whose Great Power status is being reasserted, publicly confronts the international community. The other actors had at least two options: recognition and respect. While all the champions of liberalism recognised Russia as a full participant in the international community and sent their athletic delegations to the Games, only some of them – for very different reasons – showed respect and went to Sochi to make public their own political positions (adopting a tactic of voice for expressing their dissent vis-à-vis the host government), while others denied this respect: they either did not take part at all, or they sent only low-profile delegations (choosing a tactic of exit that maybe kept their liberal pedigree cleaner, but hampered the dialogue with Russia for the foreseeable future). Considering this dilemma seems particularly important for the after-Sochi, as it is probable that the next context for confrontation between normative powers will be much more tense than the Olympics. The persistence and expansion of protests in Ukraine is a troubling phenomenon for the Russian government, and it is easy to guess that once the Olympic flames extinguish, Putin will have to deal with it: his advice to President Yanukovich, though, is likely to displease the EU and the US.


  1. N. Müller (ed.), Pierre de Coubertin 1863–1937 – Olympism: Selected Writings, Lausanne, IOC, 2000, p. 583. ↩︎