02/21/2014 12:11 EST | Updated 04/23/2014 05:59 EDT

Ukraine Violence Hasn't Cast a Shadow Over Sochi - We Have

The Sochi Games have been a lot of fun, both the athletic games and the political ones. Yet over the last two weeks critics have asked if the original meaning and value of the Olympics have been lost, namely the stuff about promoting peace among nations. They've made all sorts of accusations:

Athletes serve as pawns who risk their lives in deadly sports, all for mass entertainment; the media leeches heartrending stories from athletes whose loved ones have died, their deaths being less 'tragedies' than 'obstacles to victory'; Mr. Putin routinely violates the rights of people the media brand LGBT; corruption governs the record $51 billion spent to host the Games; up to 39 people have been killed in a "civil war" that may erupt in Ukraine and some say Mr. Putin is pulling the strings.

A recent Harper's blog wonders if "serial human rights abusers" like Russia should be allowed to host the Games, then goes so far as to ask, "Is it worth carrying on with the Olympics?"

I think so, at least for a few rich people like Mr. Putin, apparently a "major landowner in the Sochi region." While for the rest there may be no real financial payoff, the entertainment has been wild and relentless, especially the images of dead and maimed Ukrainians. Plus there's another, more enlightening payoff if we consider how similar the spirit of the ancient Olympics was to the spirit of the modern Games.

In 1928 John R. Tunis wrote that the Olympics was originally conceived to honour the gods by nurturing cooperation among nations and making athletes models of mental and physical greatness, victors being the "expression of Grecian culture at its highest." Then over hundreds of years as more events were added and more money invested, the Games became too much of a business and its old ideals were lost. The Olympics got so corrupted that even Socrates denounced it in public. Philostratus "tells of a victory bought for three thousand drachma," which reminds me of the story about today's U.S. and Russian judges accused of colluding against Canadian figure skaters.

Other Olympic traditions endure across the ages. Warring nations had to obey a truce during the ancient Games and could resume fighting only after the Games were done. The rule was supposed to help enemies feel friendly toward each other. Similarly, Russia inaugurated Sochi by calling for a worldwide truce during the Olympic period.

If the critics are right about Mr. Putin orchestrating the mayhem in Ukraine, then he's broken his truce and so honoured yet another Olympic tradition. According to Herodotus, the Lacedaemonians once "sent heavy infantry into Lepreum during the Olympic truce" and were thus barred from competing that year; but when the Games had ended, the two sides resumed killing each other. They'd already been doing that for who knows how long, which echoes the inveterate legacy of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Critics claim the violence in Ukraine has 'cast a shadow' over Sochi. The shadow of death? But the media has already cast one of those, with its endless probing of accidental deaths of athletes in training and competition, or the deaths of athletes' loved ones, or athletes' miscarriages, all to plumb the human spirit's capacity of "labouring under the shadow of death" to earn the life-choosing glory of Olympic victory. The carnage then in Ukraine doesn't cast a shadow on the Sochi Games. Instead it casts a light on something true about us, something we may already know but don't think much about, something Mark Twain was getting at when he said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Is it a crime to savour images from Ukraine of blood-stained helmets and priests praying over corpses, to be thrilled by "pitched battles between armed protesters and police" engorged in an "almost medieval melee"? Either way, it seems we can thank Mr. Putin for slaking our murderous thirst for fun. I suspect that a reputed "serial human rights abuser" like him is the Olympic host we want. He helps us see what we are, while also showing us a great time.


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