Putin under Olympic-sized spotlight

The power of sports is really pretty impressive.

If you read my columns with any regularity, (yes, I’m talking about you, dear reader) you know I believe wholeheartedly in that statement.

Vladimir Putin apparently does as well.

Just this past weekend, Russia’s president announced that LGBT participants and fans at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi are not to be discriminated against in any way. This statement came with an asterisk when Putin added that gay athletes should “leave kids alone” as a condition of this promise of security. These statements were made in light of criticism regarding a Russian law barring any public displays of homosexuality or spreading homosexual “propaganda.” The law has prompted many arrests, just as many protests, and spawned a lot of criticism for the iron-fisted Putin.

Now, Putin is not one inclined to fold under the weight of public sentiment, but the Olympics are different. Putin has made his feelings about the law clear, and his statement about tolerance isn’t fooling anyone into thinking he has changed his mind on the matter. It does, however, bring up an interesting point: the Olympics have put Russia, and more specifically Putin, under an international microscope it would have otherwise avoided. This is a good thing.

He may not change his mind about the topic ever, but bringing Putin to reason is the power of international sports. The ancient Olympic games are one of the few things in Putin’s political history that have caused him to show at least a fraction of flexibility.

President Obama’s response to Russia’s law was to send a U.S. Olympic delegation full of gay and lesbian ex-athletes, and they will undoubtedly not be the only high-profile guests who do not quite fit into Putin’s concept of the ideal human being. Many questions have been raised with regards to active protests of the games themselves, seeing as some protestors have already been arrested along the Olympic torch route.

The key is awareness, and the Olympics bring one gigantic media circus into the picture to examine every piece of the host country and even pieces of the non-host countries as well. There are dozens of events at the games, but perhaps the biggest draw of the Olympics to casual fans is the story beyond the sport.

Those human-interest stories get the ball rolling, and even though the problems don’t get solved right there during the games, the awareness grows. After the success of Team USA’s swimmer Cullen Jones in the 2008 Beijing Games, his charity that promotes swimming lessons and safety in minority communities boomed. The group of kids he targets with his work is a group traditionally underserved in one of the most basic human physical skills: swimming.

Looking to the future provides even more fodder for discussion: Rio de Janeiro, the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, and one of the main host cities of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil is a city rife with danger and has problems that many critics have highlighted in the build-up to the two events.

If not for the arrival of these two major sporting summers, the crime and poverty in Rio might have been swept under the rug of international consciousness and never really acknowledged, but instead it is out in the open. The games won’t solve the problems with Rio, but they bring to light the serious gang problems that exist there, and give the international community, with all of its resources, a chance to take a crack at the problem.

Taking a crack at the problem isn’t what Putin wants, but it’s what he’s going to get in the next month when the world converges in Sochi to perform on international sport’s grandest stage.

Peter is a freshman in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]

dailyillini.com. Follow him on Twitter @pbaileywells22.