04/03/2014 | by Sam Oetiker
Snowboarding and the Olympics is a consummated relationship, so discussing the pros and cons about their union seems like wasted breath, especially as far as Sochi is concerned. What is worth discussing though is: do athletes have moral duties to fulfill at the games?
Contrary to mainstream myth, athletes, including snowboarders, aren’t performing at the Olympics for some nationalist ideal. They are there for purely selfish reasons: to become Olympians; experience first hand the thrill of a truly international contest in which the best in the world are competing; and in the end, better their career prospects. This isn’t to denigrate why they are there or their motivation, it’s simply a fact when you oil away all the BS.
But there is more to the Olympics than just competing and winning; it provides a truly global platform for an individual, country or ‘ism to convey a message as well – the ‘ism being the reason why the US ski and snowboard team have a personal detail of security guards playing wingmen in addition to the security provided by the US government and the 40,000 Russian police and soldiers called in to police the games.
But do snowboarders have more to say than Heikki’s “I’ve got a Mohawk and I don’t care” or Ross Rebagliati’s “so what if I smoke weed it’s hardly performance enhancing”? Jeremy Jones rode the US Open with a “Bomb Iraq” sticker and although the message might not have appealed to anyone but Bush and a few rednecks, at least he had an opinion.
Athletes have a long tradition of using the Olympics as a soapbox, as do individual countries and the Olympic organisation itself. Perhaps the best know of these was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when Jesse Owen single-handedly unravelled Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy with his athletic prowess. Or when in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, first and third in the 200 metres, raised a Black Power salute on the podium to protest against racism in the US. Between them on the podium stood the Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who in solidarity wore a badge that would evoke an unofficial sanction of him as an athlete by the Australian team; he would retire a “lone soldier” as Carlos later put it.
Will a snowboarder, wear a rainbow badge or pair of rainbow ‘pro-rights’ mitts, especially made for these games, in protest against the Russian government’s draconian anti-gay laws? After all, statistics suggest that 1 in 10 of us are gay.
Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater from New Zealand who came out after the Vancouver Olympics, thinks that “the Olympics are an opportunity to influence future sporting events” as well as support the gay community of Russia and he will certainly be wearing a rainbow badge in Sochi. Under Russian law he could be fined 5,000 rubles for promoting “non-traditional sexual relations to minors”.
There is more to the Olympics than just competing and winning; it provides a truly global platform for an individual, country or ‘ism to convey a message as well.
But athletes like Blake don’t only face retribution from Russian authorities. The boss of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach also says athletes should avoid making any kind of statement during the Games, as it is in violation of Rule 50 of the Olympic convention, which states that the games should not be used to further political views. Punishment for disobeying these rules could be expulsion from the games by the IOC as well as from the national team. Remember Kazu’s brush with authority in Vancouver when he didn’t tuck in his shirt? It wasn’t even a protest, it was self-expression, but it damn near got him sent home.
The thing is, gay rights aren’t the only cause that an athlete could further in Russia: There are the local corruption scandals, land grabs and toxic dumps in and around Sochi; Or Putin’s suppression of free speech and peaceful protest as in the case of Pussy Riot and the Greenpeace activists; and the Putin regime’s heavy handed approach to a free press, with countless journalists threatened and some murdered under Putin’s watch.
This has been the most expensive winter Olympics ever in the history of the winter games, costing over $50 billion dollars. Surely, each of those bits of nicely fashioned lumps of precious metal around the winners throats are worth at least some silent protest.