The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games showed just how hard it has become for organizers and sponsors to stand silent as “hacktivists” take advantage of the world’s attention to highlight social injustice and stir dissent. Even though protests over Russia’s anti-gay laws didn’t directly disrupt the event, nor did threatened terrorism materialize, the power of social media around Sochi seems destined to push the Games into a new role as an agent for social change.
While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said consistently that the Olympic Games are about sport, not politics, Sochi is hardly the first Olympic event to rouse intense public debate. Issues involving the Olympics ranging from security, human rights, widening economic inequality, and the environment command ever more attention by media. One need only think back to the controversy during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games over Chinese violations of human rights and censorship, the U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, or the public outrage when the 1936 Games were held in Berlin amid Nazi persecution to realize there has often, if not always, been some political tension around the modern-day Games.
What seems clear in the aftermath of Sochi is that the IOC is starting to recognize the need for the Olympic brand to better clarify what the Games stand for. Its new president Thomas Bach of Germany has called for his organization to act as a catalyst for change, and the IOC and the United Nations are working together to help promote “shared ideals of sustainability, universality, solidarity, non-discrimination, [and] the fundamental equality of all people,” as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently. And certainly, there is no other event globally with the kind of economic clout and draw necessary to hold participating nations and their leaders to the kind of high standards of equality, achievement and fairness used to govern Olympic athletes.
For corporate sponsors, too, who are increasingly acknowledging the need to state their values explicitly, being part of an Olympic movement that embraces larger issues of human potential would make their sponsorships even more valuable and important.
No doubt, diverse nations and cultures respond differently to social issues. The Russian legal discrimination against gays that energized North American activists around the Sochi Games failed to generate a similar response in other regions. But while the Olympic Movement may not be able to solve every issue, this uniquely global event on a totally connected planet still represents a rare opportunity to focus the world’s attention on pressing human problems within the positive framework of athletic competition.
For more than a century, the Games have helped unify the world – at least for a short period. The Games to follow may unify us on a much more lasting basis, one that takes the spirit of the Olympic Village and brings it to bear on the problems of our Global Village.