World
4:26 pm
Fri February 7, 2014

How Go the Olympic Games, So Will Go Russia's Global Status

The Olympic Torch is lit during the Opening Ceremonies at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Credit Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich interviews Marquette law professor Gordon Hylton.

The opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics will air in the U.S. tonight, but the Games have already been marked by controversy.

Ongoing concerns about the threat of domestic terrorism marring the games have led some families of Olympians to stay away from the Games. And disparaging remarks by Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, about gays and lesbians have led to calls for protests and boycotts.

But Russia is determined to show the rest of the world what it can do, says Gordon Hylton, a professor at Marquette Law School whose expertise includes both sports history and Russia.

"The whole post-Soviet history of Russia, at least the early part of it, is just one perceived national embarrassment after another. In a variety of ways, Russia is clearly back as a major world power, and this, I think, is an important way of emphasizing that point," Hylton says.

Hylton says it's as important for Russians to prove to its own people that it can put on a successful Olympics as to the rest of the world.

"To have the Winter Olympics at warm-water, Black Sea port seemed crazy at first...so this isn't just putting on the Olympic Games; this is changing the climate, this is changing the weather, this is importing hundreds of tons of manmade snow," he says. "I think this is Russia's way of saying that we can take on these monumental tasks and complete them effectively both internally and externally."

Hylton says it's clear that the Olympics are a major source of national pride for Russians. He notes that during a trip to the Moscow airport he saw dozens of high end shops - what he says an attempt to show off, at least to those in the airport, that Russia is a rich country.

"The way the Olympic Games are being portrayed in the Soviet Union is largely motivated by a desire to convince the Russian people that it's back, that Russia is a world power, Russia is a country that needs to be taken seriously by all the other countries in the world," he says. "So I think Putin is playing this beautifully as a domestic issue."

But much attention from the rest of the world has been focused on Putin's position on homosexuality, after a Russian law was passed last year that banned "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.

Though Putin has reassured gay athletes and tourists that they are welcome in Russia, his anti-gay stance has divided the world. But Hylton says there's nothing per se radical about Putin's stance given Russia's traditionalism on the issue.

"It's not going to hurt Putin domestically, but I think there is the problem of Russia now looking like a kind of coarse bully to the rest of the world," he says. "This particular approach to crack down on homosexual activity and particularly the publication of pro-homosexual viewpoints, to link that crackdown to the Olympic Games was probably a kind of strategic error, at least vis–à–vis the way the West is now perceiving Russia."

Despite the controversies, the United States will send its largest delegation ever to the Winter Olympics - including several openly gay athletes.

As the Games get underway, Hylton says they will be a test as far as how Russia responds to security concerns that terrorists might target the games. But Russia already has decades of experience dealing with dissident and Islamic terrorists, he says.

"I think what they're counting on is there will not be any significant events and that this will prove that not only can Russia put on an elaborate and impressive set of Games in a bizarre location, but that it can make them entirely safe," he says. "Now obviously this will backfire if in fact there are terrorist attacks, or the Black Widows are able to filter through."

Hylton's expertise includes both Russia and sports history.  Hylton is teaching this semester at the University of Virginia.