Salt Lake City well understands the benefits that come from being a host to the Olympic Games, and the tendency others have to point out problems. This experience ought to inform how people in Utah regard what is unfolding today in Sochi, Russia.
Salt Lake is one of only six cities in the United States to have hosted the quadrennial international sporting event. The others are Lake Placid, N.Y., and Squaw Valley, Calif., for the winter games; and St. Louis, Los Angeles and Atlanta for the summer games.
Although the economic impact of a particular Olympic Games depends on innumerable factors, there can be little doubt that the spotlight cast by the games magnifies opportunities for the host city and country. It’s no wonder, then, that 82 percent of Utahns want a repeat of the 2002 games here in Salt Lake City.
Today the world turns its attention to Sochi, Russia, a Black Sea resort with the Caucasus Mountains as a backdrop, for the beginning of the 22nd Winter Olympiad. Many have and will be critical of the Russian Federation, its leader Vladimir Putin, and the unsavory aspects of the state that range from corruption to violations of freedom of speech.
These criticisms may be in order. From the time that Russia began to throw off the shackles of the Soviet Union and communism, in 1991, to today, there have clearly been some progress and new opportunities in Russia. But for a number of reasons, the nation has been unable to live up to the opportunities of democratic capitalism that seemed so promising two decades ago. This is, after all, the first Olympic Games held on Russian soil since the 1980 Moscow games. They were boycotted by much of the world because of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
It would be naïve to insist that the games should somehow be “above” politics. Who can forget the victories of athletes like Jesse Owens, whose accomplishments ruined Adolf Hitler’s efforts to create a narrative of a racial superiority at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin?
Equally significant is the gradual, almost imperceptible, increase in the percentage of female athletes competing in the games. Additionally, the Olympics are one of the few venues in which small and little-known countries come to prominence, as their athletes compete on an equal footing with the superstars from superpower nations.
As natural as it might be to view an international spectacle through the lenses of big and little political controversies, the Olympics are indeed about something beyond the nation-state. They allow athletes, who toil year after year — often at great personal sacrifice — to improve their prowess, their stamina and their technique to showcase their skills on a world stage. Winning a gold medal at the Olympics can constitute the very height of human athletic achievement.
At its core, the Olympics are a celebration of human excellence: that long-running effort to jump farther, to ski faster and to skate with more grace and fluidity than seems possible to human eyes.
As the games begin in Sochi, we urge the spectators of the world to turn their attention not to the faults and frailties of an Olympic host, but to the promise and victories of the athletes competing in Russia.