Can You Enjoy the Sochi Olympics?

I love the Olympics. So I’m not exactly the type who is going to go out of the way to find reasons not to watch.* And luckily, for people my age, the worst that can be said about most of the Olympics we’ve been alive for is that maybe they weren’t the greatest use of money (Athens 2004, for example). But it’s not like Lillehammer in ’94 or Atlanta in ’96 or Nagano in ’98, or other Olympics of the last two decades have presented would-be viewers with insoluble (or even difficultly soluble) moral quandaries.

This year’s Winter Games and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing are the two undeniable exceptions. In each case, both the actual activities of putting on the games themselves and the general qualities of the governments doing the putting on make watching, at least on the face of it, somewhat unpalatable. Strangely though, perhaps because I was younger or because I didn’t know as much about China then as I do now (not to suggest I know much now, either), I watched the Beijing Games without concern. But this year I have rather more serious qualms.**

I’d like to think the difference in reaction is simply a function of my being a little older, a very little bit wiser, and immensely more aware of the nature of governments the world over – if the Beijing Olympics were tomorrow I hope I would be similarly unsettled by my desire to be enthusiastic about them. But I wonder if, as someone fascinated by the Cold War and well aware of Russia’s broader history as an authoritarian state, it’s not just too easy for me to let Russia play the villain in ways that wouldn’t occur to me for other states.

To be sure, if that is the case, the remedy is to stop extending the benefit of the doubt to other states, not to start offering it to Russia. But this line of thinking, while logically and morally more consistent, is also borderline terrifying. Not even evil, but just regular, anodyne, almost administrative in quality, injustice exists everywhere in the world, at all times. Acting accordingly in all situations as a result would be more or less paralytic. France has the modern-era legacy of Algeria; does that make going to the Louvre a morally fraught proposition? I love visiting Croatia, but it is the same state which gave a hero’s welcome to a man indicted for war crimes; should I stop going?. My home country, of which I am generally rather proud, is built on the graves of its indigenous population; should I move someplace else, or pay reparations?

I think what an exercise like the above shows is that we experience the world with the moral sensitivities we have, not the ones we’d like. And that, to some extent that might be alright. That certainly doesn’t excuse say, racism, because, “Hey, I grew up in the Deep South and it’s just not something I care about” – there are standards of moral decency which really aren’t up for debate. But at the same time, our ability to be morally outraged is practically speaking, finite. Consequently, and returning to the specific context of the Sochi Olympics, perhaps enjoying the performances of American athletes (and those of all the other nationalities, too) doesn’t mean we have to condone the fact that they’re taking place under the auspices of an authoritarian government. And if the attention drawn by the Games can also be diffused to include the abuses of their sponsor, then perhaps there are worse outcomes.*** It is massively unsatisfying to consent to a position that amounts to, “if everyone just gets outraged about the things they arbitrarily happen to care about, maybe enough outrage will be generated to make the world an incrementally better place.” But practically (or maybe just selfishly), I can’t come up with anything better.

*This year the biggest impediment will be living sans both cable and a digital converter
**I do love the delegation we’re sending this year
***On the other hand, it would be foolish to presume Putin does not expect the games to serve as a sort of international tacit validation of his reign in Russia