By E. Martin Nolan
Sport lends itself to a condition of moral simplicity. A major reason we turn to sport is for the undeniable certainty of its win/loss, rule-bound dynamic. At no time does sport’s artificial certainty stand out more than it does at the Olympics, because at no other time does it clash more with the deviousness of the world at large. Like the World Cup, the Olympics produces the same tension each time: between the simplified morality of sport itself and the problematic morality of the forces that control sport, or of the nations represented.
Putin’s games provide a case in point of that. As has been well documented, these games are the most expensive in history and are being played against the backdrop of Russia’s domestic Islamic insurgency, a recent anti-gay law, Putin’s blatant attempt to keep the Ukraine under the Kremlin’s lock and key, the US-Russia showdown over Russian arm sales to Syria, Pussy Riot, an uptick in anti-Putin demonstrations—and on and on. And that’s not even to mention the controversy directly related to the games: the environmental damage caused by the construction, the local residents forced out of their homes, the (reported) shoddy construction itself, the rampant corruption involved… .
That said, it’s easy for us North Americans to go overboard in regard to Putin’s Russia. The US and Canada both need to answer for matters of military support, environmental damage, domestic spying, imprisonment, and other issues. But that recognition only adds to the Olympics’ moral strangeness.
[UPDATE:] Stephen F. Cohen would argue Putin’s role in the Ukraine has been grossly misrepresented, and that US and EU are far from innocent when it comes to that ongoing crisis. It’s an interesting read.
That is all to say the Games lead us to focus on the host country’s, shall we say, performance on the world stage. As was the case with China, we in North America see a lot of things in Russia that strike us as strange, as other, as nuts. At the same time we are forced, or should be, to check our own face in the mirror.
For we see similarities too: Putin can seem like just another modern politician who bullshits for the cameras as well as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair or Rob Ford ever did (differently, sure, but apparently it’s just as effective). Putin uses sport as propaganda like in Don Cherry’s wet dreams. But at the same time he rules such that his name ends up in the same sentence as Stalin quite regularly. We see people afraid to criticize him publicly. He rules over a sham democracy, and regularly flouts the rule of law. Again, that’s not to say our North American representative republics are free of the same crimes, but at the very least our power brokers exert their command in a far different manner. (Again, the Cohen piece is worth considering here).
All this focus on national political performance stands out all the more for being in stark contrast to the Olympic competitions themselves, which in their playing out stand isolated, if only temporarily, from all that messiness outside. Which brings me to Olympic hockey.
The standard move in this part of my argument would have me calling the game something like “the great leveler,” because it eliminates the differences politics highlight, or something like that. I’d prefer to consider it the great simplifier, because historically the game has not leveled out differences between the cultures that play it. It has, instead, simplified those differences, and then eliminated them.
When the Soviets faced the Canadians during the Cold War, the world witnessed two civilizations attempting to articulate their different worldviews through a shared game. The Soviets were all about the system, about stamping out the loner and mashing him into the collective, while the Canadians were all about dancing that impossible dance between individuality and sacrifice to the team. Or that was the story.
An interesting thing happened next. In the time since that “first contact” moment, the world’s elite hockey players have found their styles clash far less than the civilizations whose core values they supposedly represented with their play on the ice. The Russians have produced some of the most dazzling individual talents the world has ever had the pleasure to witness, and Gretzky might never have been Gretzky if his dad hadn’t influenced his play with Soviet hockey ideas. Now, in the post-Russian Five era when no one bats an eye at Russians or Europeans lighting up the NHL, you could easily make the case that the world’s elite hockey nations have converged onto one NHL-fostered style of play. After all, do the Sedins, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Pavel Datsyuk play hockey very differently?
No, they don’t. Gone are the days when diagonal passes confused Canadians and hard checking phased Russians. Even with the KHL challenging the NHL at the elite level, the game has globalized; while it has done so, the world at large has lagged behind, for obvious reasons. If power could be said to apply to both a sport and to politics, then the stakes must differentiate the two. Canada and Russia’s hockey power has weakened, and that’s great for the game. But weaken a once powerful nation, and you might get a strong man establishing an iron grip on power.
So we in North America get Ovechkin, or his game at least, but we don’t get Putin. Yet, we’ve been witnessing these two phenomena side-by-side at these Olympics. On the one hand there is Putin and the West, the lingering legacy of the Cold War; on the other, a game that was once split along those same lines, but which has left that history behind.
I’m tempted to wonder here if the globalized style of NHL hockey represents a symbolic victory for liberalism, if we define liberalism as the flattening of cultural difference in the service of peace, order and tolerance. That would make the NHL, and it’s profit motive, into the flattening agent. That would be complicated, and I do not have time for that now.
Instead I’ll consider two possible reactions to the tension between the harmonious competition we’re witnessing on Sochi’s ice rinks and their messy backdrop. The first is to consider the games—not the Olympics, but the actual hockey games between the boards—in their apparent purity, as a kind of beard for the ugliness that went into their organizing and for the policies of the nations involved. The other is to consider the games as a civilized contrast to those same problematics.
Both perspectives are deeply flawed and inadequate, but absolutely in play. This year’s Olympics, especially the hockey tournament, give us much to chew on.