Putin turned Sochi Winter Olympic Games into another power play

Russian president Vladimir Putin was in all his glory during the Olympics in Sochi in February.
Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

Now that Vladimir Putin has -- so far -- gotten what he wants, now that the West has proven unable or unwilling to stop him, now that the first chill of a new Cold War is being felt across Europe, now that Bode Miller, Johnny Weir and rest of the stray dogs have all but faded from view, I have a question. Why didn't the Russian president greenlight that troop movement to the Ukraine border, make his grab for Crimea, a month or two earlier?

After all, tensions had been rising since late November in Ukraine, when its pro-Putin president announced plans to abandon a pact with the European Union. Protesters took to the streets in early December, and didn't go away even after Putin tried dangling a $15 billion bribe and a cut in national gas prices. Crimea had been a pang in his nationalist gut forever. Why wait?

The answer, of course, is the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and what would have happened if Putin had moved to annex Crimea before the Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 7. Let's assume that Western leaders, already irked by the June enactment of Russia's anti-gay law, would've seized upon the handy symbolic cudgel that they so clearly lack today. Nations would've boycotted. Athletes would've worn black armbands. Talking heads would've roared endless condemnation: Russia's $50 billion rebranding as a revitalized superpower would've been declared a debacle.

"It would've wrecked his Olympics," says Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. "Putin wants to have world leaders sitting next to him (at the Opening Ceremonies), and he did: He had the Dutch king. Why do repressive governments want the Olympics? Part of the kabuki, the charade of the Olympics, is that it lets you stand on the world stage and burnish your image in front of your own people -- in a way that nothing else does. That's why Putin wanted the Olympics so much and why he delayed whatever the plans were. It would've rained on the party."

That being true, though, also proves two points that hold little currency these days. The first, that Putin is actually susceptible to embarrassment and soft power, is something for frantic profilers at the state department to fiddle with. But the second is that the Olympic Games, even after its shamelessly truckling performance in the face of human rights abuses involving both the 2008 Beijing games and Sochi, retains the power to influence the behavior of even the most brutish actors on the world stage.

This is hard to imagine right now, what with Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe nervously eyeing its flanks. The Olympic Charter and "Movement" -- or as the most starry-eyed adherents term it, "Olympism" -- officially stands in favor of anti-discrimination, press freedom and a positive legacy for its host nations. Yet even amid the '14 games, HRW, which had extensively charted pre-games harassment of foreign and domestic journalists, felt the need to denounce the Russian government's record as "abysmal", citing the jailing of a critical environmental activist and the arrests of pro-gay protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The official line from the International Olympic Committee? Sochi was "a fantastic success," IOC president Thomas Bach said last Friday, in his farewell to retiring member Jean-Claude Killy, the skiing legend who served as chief of the coordination commission for the 2014 games. "His greatest achievement."

And this wasn't something new. Six years earlier, after Beijing organizers promised the IOC an effort to "enhance" human rights in their bid host the games, the Beijing authorities did anything but. Crackdowns on dissent accelerated before and after the games. Two elderly women who signed up at a specially-marked, regime-approved Olympic "protest zone" were interrogated for 10 hours and sentenced to a year in a labor camp.

"About China: The Olympics, we can say now, were negative for human rights there," Worden says. "It empowered the worst elements in the government and tipped off a several-year political deep freeze." For those figuring that's a chapter not worth revisiting, think again. Beijing -- along with Zhangjiakou -- is bidding to host the winter games in 2022.

If you find this a bit inexplicable, you're not alone. Only one other peaceable organization on the planet has the power to make even the most intractable cities and nations bend to its will -- but FIFA's World Cup is just a money machine. At their worst, Olympics officials can be sanctimonious and greedy fools, but the organization's finest moments include a 27-year boycott of apartheid-era South Africa, the pressuring of South Korea into democracy in 1988, and the successful ban-threat that forced Saudi Arabia to allow women to compete for the first time in London in 2012. They give out Nobel Peace Prizes for less.

Yet faced with two of the world's worst offenders, Olympic idealism withered. Worden says that HRW has seen some "progress" from the IOC since Beijing: The IOC successfully pressed Russian organizers to pay $8 million in back-wages that had gone unpaid to 6,175 laborers on Olympic sites, and to provide water and transport to a town that had lost both for years in the buildup to the '14 games. But, taken in the context of Putin's ongoing bluster and domestic popularity, it all seems very small.

Indeed, history will show that China and Russia are gambles that the IOC lost. Did the Olympics soften Putin? Make Russia more a part of the world community? Hardly. Many consider it bad form to compare anyone to Hitler -- just ask Hillary Clinton -- but for now Putin is making it all but inevitable. It's not just the revanchist rhetoric, or his stated need to "defend" ethnic Russians, that revives images of the Austrian Anschluss of 1938. It's the use of the Olympic rings as a great legitimizer. Berlin, '36, was a farce the IOC should never want to replay.

Yet even with all the reports about rampant corruption, the abuse of migrant workers and the disdain for LGBT concerns, and all the inhibitions placed on the Russian press, Sochi still ended up a propaganda film. And within a month, even as the 2014 Paralympic Games came to a close, Crimea was his.

These days, of course, the world isn't thinking about the Olympics much. The next three games -- Rio in 2016, Pyongchang in 2018, Tokyo in 2020 -- don't figure to be human rights embarrassments, so it's easy to believe that the IOC will continue skating blindly along, doing big business as usual.

Worden isn't so sure. She senses an opportunity. Bach has called for an "extraordinary session" of stakeholders in Monaco in December, "Olympic Agenda 2020", to create a "roadmap" for the his still-young term. "There is a great readiness and even determination for change and for reforms," he said last December.

Doping, and the bidding process, and something called "Olympism in Action" will be some of the topics discussed. But supposedly all ideas are welcome, and the submission deadline is April 15. Human Rights Watch plans on recommending a revision of the host-city bid process and the Olympic Charter that will include explicit support for LGBT rights, specific human rights pledges and independent monitoring, and a host-city contract that includes a "nuclear option" -- the relocation of the games if the city fails to abide by those commitments.

"It just got too ugly for everyone," Worden says. "I wouldn't expect the type of the whitewash we had after Beijing. With the combination of Beijing and Russia, I think that we're going to see some changes to the Olympic Charter, changes to the host-city process. Why? Because in Olympic history, it has always taken a really ugly black eye moment -- the doping in '88, the corruption in Salt Lake City -- to do that. I think Sochi was It for human rights."

We'll see. Truth is, it wouldn't take much to end this recent bad chapter and change the Olympics for the better. Bach and the IOC need only to shift emphasis, expand the already enshrined ideals, and add some teeth to give them true bite. The alternative is to go on pretending that the games weren't just used as moral cover for a bully's ongoing power grab. The alternative is to keep watching their new friend glower on the news, and worry over what he'll do next.

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