THE BLOG

Sochi Games Dazzled, But Should Not Blind

02/24/2014 04:34 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

The 2014 Sochi Winter Games ended with a bang. From the iridescent blue lines hanging above performers to the paintings in tribute to the great writers, the images of the closing ceremony reflected Russian culture and imperial legacy. There was a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the Games' one apparent flaw -- the Olympic ring malfunction of the opening ceremony. As the ceremony director Konstantin Ernst said, "If you have the perfectly polished ball, leave a nick in it so you can understand just how perfectly it is polished."

This perfection came with a significant price tag. President Vladimir Putin spent $51 billion on the Sochi Games, costing more than all previous Winter Games combined. The torch relay spanned 40,000 miles, the longest in Olympic history. The audience included 40,000 riveted individuals in the stadium and billions more abroad.

The Games were designed to dazzle but should not blind us to Russian repression. In 2008, China sought to do the same with the Summer Olympics in Beijing, on which they spent $40 billion. The 2008 Olympics, like the 1980 Moscow Games, had strong political undertones. Many nations had opposed China's bid to host the Olympics, arguing that it was not economically, environmentally, or democratically prepared. China's arrangements, from resplendent ceremonies to sophisticated technology, were calculated displays of soft power to the world, especially to the Unites States.

While there are differences between the two nations, including the fact that China is a Communist state while Russia is now a democratic one, strong parallels connect the former Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China in their efforts to host the prestigious Olympic Games. Russia was criticized for corruption and environmental harms to the beautiful local landscape in preparing for the Games. Most importantly, Russia was censured for suppression of speech and political plurality.

The city of Sochi itself is an emblem of that repression. Circassians, the native peoples of the Northwest Caucasus, advocated a boycott of the Games, citing what they call the genocide of their people in Sochi, formerly a Circassian city. The city represents a historical and modern-day struggle between Russia and the people of the region. Not too long ago, Putin engaged in a violent campaign against the nearby Caucasian lands. Today, Chechens suffer from the tyrannical leadership of Russian-backed warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. This history spread its bleak shadow over the concerns of terrorism that threatened the Games.

In 2010, I published a research paper about the effect of the 2008 Beijing Olympics on Americans' public perceptions of China, using media outlets and public opinion polls. I looked through the smiling performers and the cheering fans to investigate a deeper question of whether the Chinese effort at deflecting human rights criticism was successful. It was. The U.S. media refocused the discussion on China away from its treatment of political dissidents, as well as minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Before the Games, 73 percent of Americans rated the Chinese government's respect for human rights as mostly or very bad, yet ultimately a majority of Americans thought it was a good decision to hold the Olympics in China.

I hope the same will not occur after the Sochi Games. The international media has been diligent in holding Putin to account for his tight grip on the country. In the lead-up to the Olympics, President Putin promised to pardon at least 20,000 political prisoners, including ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorovsky, the Pussy Riot band, and Greenpeace activists who had been protesting on a Russian oil rig.

This was an important game for Russia. It was the country's first time hosting the Olympics as the Russian Federation. Previously, it hosted the 1980 Olympics in the then-U.S.S.R., which was marked by international boycotts protesting the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Russia deserves to take credit for a well-choreographed and planned Olympics. However, that should not distract us from the repression in this ostensibly democratic state. The Games attempted to show us that Russia is strong, successful, and well-run despite international criticism to the contrary. We should show Putin that the Winter Olympic Games have indeed put a spotlight on his country. Now, he must continue to implement democratic reforms and loosen his hold on political activism in Russia in order to become a respected figure on the world stage.