With the Olympics under way, I have been hearing a recurrent theme of childhood recollections of Olympics past. Glorious athletes! Dazzling ceremonies! Hours mimicking those flips in the back yard! That nostalgia even prompted my boyfriend to volunteer at the Sochi Olympics – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realize a childhood dream. To many, the Olympics are a relic of childhood, and I’m no exception. Except these Olympics struck a chord with me that I did not expect.
As I watched the Opening Ceremonies with my son, I was dumbstruck by the artistic output and the cultural expression on display. The references resonated because it is “my” Olympics too – I was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in the US surrounded by plenty of Russian-ness, and got my undergraduate degree in Russian Languages and Literature. In watching the ceremony with my son, I felt I was relating something that I could not convey in words.
And then I opened Facebook and saw the countless reasons why the Russians did not deserve the Olympics, replays of the one flaw in the ceremony, and litanies about Putin. I looked up and noticed that though MSNBC was airing the ceremony 10 hours after its occurrence, they had not bothered to translate Russian speeches, nor to check the spelling of “Vladimir”. It felt quite a bit like those first few weeks in the second grade, when I spoke little English but was tormented as a “Russian spy” and a “Commie” by my classmates. Never mind that none of us knew what that meant, I was at the bottom of the pecking order.
The world has changed enormously in the last eighteen years, but that enmity remains. There are political reasons, which are eloquently addressed in this Foreign Policy article, which reads “When Americans look at Russia, they see what they want to see. And that’s dangerous.” The gist lies in Russians viewing the issues splashed across Western media in very different terms, often with indifference. Their day-to-day concerns have little to do with Pussy Riot.
Another article, from The Guardian, voices my thoughts on the anti-gay law “…while western opponents of the Kremlin’s law may have noble intentions, their criticism has far too often been both hysterical and hypocritical. Condemnation has also at times resembled hate speech, as in… suggestion(s) that Russians have nothing whatsoever of value to offer the world.” The reality is, most Americans still know little about Russia. Imagine hearing America’s loudest and most offensive fringe voices and painting the entire nation with that brush. Americans are not the only guilty party – I am equally annoyed when I hear Russian media, or even Norwegians, making fun of US quirks. It’s the bi-cultural equivalent of inviting guests into my home, only to have them criticize the silverware.
My son’s ballet teacher recently mentioned that he very proudly asked to count aloud in Russian. For now, he brags about his heritage and delights in Russian cartoons. I would love for him to one day recount childhood memories of Olympic Titans. But these games have become so politicized and polarized that he’s bound to hear that the Russians didn’t deserve them, and in some small way, that will sting. So please, when you watch the games with your children, revel in the grace and form of the individuals involved, and don’t pass on Cold War politics to those little ears. Let’s focus on the athletes who have spent a lifetime working toward those moments on screen, and on the volunteers hauling around their skis, no matter their nationalities or political leaders.