The 2014 Winter Olympics are under way in Sochi, opening with the pageantry and pomp that traditionally accompanies these gatherings of athletes from around the world in a competition that is supposed to set political differences aside in a spirit of universality.
That ideal, enshrined as the modern Olympic "spirit," is sorely tested when host nations pursue policies of repression that are at odds with basic human freedoms. It will be challenging, to put it mildly, to watch this gathering in Russia without considering the politics and policies of Vladimir Putin.
The host of the Sochi Games has systematically curtailed basic liberties in Russia, turning back the nascent democratic impules that blossomed there a generation ago following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin's Russia is a nation with little tolerance for dissent, a nation where the media is largely controlled by the state and those who dare to criticize the former KGB agent now serving his third term as president do so at their own risk.
While Putin has made gestures toward tolerance -- granting amnesty to some of his opponents and those imprisoned for political offenses, downplaying Russia's homophobic targeting of gay men and women and sanctioning limited demonstrations at the Sochi games -- his kinder and gentler face cannot mask his basic nature and the fact that Russia is a tightly controlled, repressive state. Nor is it easy for Americans who follow foreign affairs to ignore the fact that Putin's Russia poses a growing threat to the independence of some of its neighbors, erstwhile Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, as Moscow attempts to regain its lost status as a superpower.
This isn't the first time, of course, that the Olympics have been hosted by a nation with little regard for democratic ideals. The 2008 Summer Games took place in Beijing. Moscow's hosting of the Olympics in 1980 became ensnarled in a political dispute that led to an American-led boycott of the Soviet games. The most egregious violator of human rights ever to host the Games was Adolf Hitler, who turned the 1936 Berlin Games into a showcase for the Nazi state.
The true spirit of the Olympics -- focusing on competition among athletes regardless of their backgrounds, promoting friendship among nations and mutual respect for those showcasing their sports prowess -- promotes ideals that are admirable and deserve to be embraced. It is hard, however, to celebrate those ideals against a backdrop that is at odds with basic freedoms.
When the Sochi Games end and Putin's Potemkin village returns to normal, Russians will find themselves living in a nation with little tolerance for dissent and even less respect for democracy. Putin's smiles at Sochi cannot hide his true nature, as his neighbors -- and, we suspect, Washington -- realize. There is a very thin line between a "strongman" and a dictator.
Millions across the world will watch the televised spectacle of the Olympics over the next two weeks, thrilling to the athletic feats showcased in Sochi and cheering on national favorites. Americans are likely to learn some new household names as the games progress. Spectacles and sports aside, it will remain difficult to celebrate Olympic ideals without having second thoughts about those hosting the competition.