Our View Of Russia

The 2002 winter Olympics are now history. As has been widely written, they will go down as being one of the most successful games ever, despite the scandal that took place in the judging of the pairs figure skating competition. As is known, the Canadian pair – which clearly skated better – initially received the silver medal, while the Russians “traditionally” won their gold, despite falling and clearly coming up short. But all traditions must come to an end. Once the fact that the competition was rigged came to light, the tradition of Russian supremacy in pairs figure skating ended, albeit via the new precedent of the awarding of a second gold medal (within the same competition) to the Canadians.

What now remains to be seen is, whether the human tradition of corruption, accepting bribes, or at the very least deal-making, (the basis for the judge’s decision in this case), will ever see its end. Although I don’t have a poll in front of me, I believe that most Central Europeans as well as Westerners view Russia with mixed feelings. These feelings are based on Russia’s mixed past and present, which includes such things as a society that has never known democracy, Sputnik, the cold war, Vladimir Putin, pervasive alcoholism, heroism and stoicism, and yes – dominance in figure skating. For its part, Russia and Russians have traits that come from this past – determination, a paranoid preoccupation of constantly being under siege, and a reactive love for drama, bigness and grandiosity, whether it’s in personal taste, Tchaikovsky, or politics.

Back to figure skating and the olympics. Far more significant than the end of the traditions of Russian dominance in figure skating and of single gold medals, was the fact that Russia missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to create an unprecedented positive image to the rest of the world. Imagine if, as they stood on the victory stand, the Russian pair took off their gold medals and handed them to the Canadians next to them. Except for creating immediate confusion as to which national anthem to play, the results would have been electric. Regardles of who really was better, it would be a gesture of magnanimous proportions.

Russia is now a country that really plays fair. Even regarding issues of national pride and identity, such as figure skating. And if an opportunistic opportunity arises, Russia will see to it that fairness still wins out. The image of the cold war opponent has just flown out the window, once and for all. This would have immediate ramifications. Giving something away is always far more important and significant than accepting. Not just at the sporting level, but at the diplomatic level. Sport, after all, is a mirror of life, and a huge influence on national and international image. Russia is now a more accomodating partner, one truly graceful.

But Russia has never learned that, and never will. And so, despite all the above, the figure skating pair was later seen on TV with their coach, sticking to their claim that that they were better in that they had the better program. What should Putin have done? As he watched the marks go up, he should have grabbed that red phone next to him and told his players: “give them that damned medal now!” Instead, Russian olympic officials demanded that their second place female solo figure skater should have been first. Putin wailed that the whole olympics were western-influenced, aggressively defending his figure skaters as well as several Russian olympians accused of taking drugs to build themselves up. A few days later, the standings held up, the dope charges were proven true, and Russian athletes were stripped of their medals. Would other athletes or other countries have acted differently? Yes, I firmly believe so. And that is why, Mr Putin and Russia, we view you the way we do. 


The New Presencespring 2002

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