The Riot of Sochi 2014

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina of Pussy Riot, via the New Yorker

Nadezhda (Nadya) Tolokonnikova and Maria (Masha) Alekhina of Pussy Riot, via the New Yorker

After I came back from London in 2012, I had a slew of people ask me if I was going to Sochi in 2014. I stared at them dumbfounded.

“They put Pussy Riot in jail! I can’t imagine what they’d do to me.”

Yes, a passing stupid joke, but I don’t know why anyone would think I’d want to go to Russia for the Olympics. While London 2012 was mostly harmless, Sochi 2014 gave me the chills. I couldn’t imagine something good coming out of it. What I read about London 2012 preceding the Games was expected in the course of the Olympics: people complaining about an upheaval. Considering these people are British with a tendency to avoid getting excited about things, I was slightly anxious going in but unsurprised at how happily the Games were received. The whole thing seemed to be people complaining about bad weather, rain before a sunny day.

The sense I get from Sochi 2014 is an oncoming storm.


The Olympics is usually unpredictable when it comes to media coverage. It’s unpredictable in general. That’s the damn point. The most alluring stories of the Olympics are twofold: the athletes wins and losses and the political stories we subscribe to these stories which are ultimately meaningless in the long run. Having every country in the world send a female athlete — as I wrote about during the London 2012 Olympics — does not change the fact that women’s rights around the world are subpar, to put it lightly. It gives us hope though, which is usually the best and brightest the Olympics can offer. It takes these personal stories of athletes and magnifies them on a national and political scale so they become of collective import, a case study in how we can be.

Plus a recent New Yorker article points out that Pussy Riot is now out of jail after being granted amnesty and is not shutting up about it:

I got in touch with Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, who were just released from Russian prison colonies after nearly two years—part of Putin’s pre-Olympic amnesties, which are clearly intended to tamp down criticism from human-rights organizations and foreign governments. They will appear onstage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, on February 5th, with Madonna, the Flaming Lips, Imagine Dragons, and Lauryn Hill, at a benefit concert for Amnesty International. They will not perform their music, but they will have things to say.

According to the article, while Pussy Riot was released thanks to pressures from the West, they were supposed to get out in two months. They talk about how Putin is maintaining an image, a false fortitude:

“These Olympic Games are central to the meaning of his life—they are as important to him as anything he has done,” Alekhina said. “For us, it is important from an entirely different point of view. People need to note the corruption involved in building Sochi for the Games; they should notice the demolitions of buildings.”

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina said they thought that Putin, despite managing to suppress the wave of anti-government protests that erupted in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia two years ago, is weaker than he seems to the outside world.

Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny goes deeper into the issue:

Navalny, who told me that the 2014 Olympic project is, for Putin, “what the pyramids were for the pharaohs,” also said that the government amnesties shortening the prison terms of the Pussy Riot members, the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and some Greenpeace activists were merely a concession to the West on the eve of the Games. “The amnesties indicate that Putin is tired of answering these questions,” Navalny said. “He is fed up with the question of gay rights and safety issues and Khodorkovsky. The main point with Khodorkovsky is not the release—it was not launching a third case against him. The Olympic Games is the main reason why it happened, but it doesn’t indicate a real thaw. Yes, he released Khodorkovsky, but only after he was in prison for ten years. Pussy Riot was in prison for two years, and they were supposed to get out in two months. So he found the best-known cases in the West and he addressed them. But, believe me, we have many more cases of illegal prosecution in our country.”

Putin goes into the Olympics with something to prove, something to say. He wants to show how great Russia is, to establish a national identity:

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told me. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea—with the Church, with sports and the Olympics.”

I’m intrigued to see him try. Maybe Putin will actually achieve his stupid dream and make us think of Russia differently, as a country with a culture that is not full of political strife. But between political and security concerns and human rights abuses, what is happening instead is he is relenting in these areas. He is attempting to downplay the damage by quietly erasing the concerns. Instead, they read as tacit admission of how bad it looks. By attempting to increase the cultural story, he has put himself at the mercy of an international audience.

As part of that international audience, I’ll be watching.


The Right Story For a Tennis Star

When it comes to actually watching tennis, I tend to become restless, because during every serve and back and forth, there’s always the anticipation of the moment when someone drops the ball, when you let out the breath you’ve been holding, like you just did after reading this terrible run-on sentence. However, when it comes to tennis stars, I’m always biased towards Andy Murray because he won the gold medal in London 2012. Also, a little girl I interviewed said her favorite Olympic athlete was, “the swimmer, Andy Murray.”

I spent 20 minutes looking for the right picture

Look at that smile! AWWW.

Unlike a sport such as football or soccer, big tennis matches are not lead-ins to a grand finale. Each one is a grand finale in its own right — specifically, the Australian Open, US Open, Wimbledon (the fancy name the Europeans call their tournament), and the French Open are all considered “Grand Slams.” That means tennis is not about winning that one tournament, but winning as many as you can.  The New York Times rounds up this year’s tennis narrative:

So it went in a year that despite all of Djokovic’s earthly achievements and supernatural flexibility will belong in the history books and the memory banks to Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

Nadal was both the player of the year and comeback player of the year, brimming with urgency and accuracy after serious knee problems and winning 10 titles — six on clay and four on outdoor hardcourts — while compiling a 75-7 record.

Murray secured himself a permanent place of privilege in his class-conscious island nation by beating Djokovic to become the first British man in 77 years to win Wimbledon (his book “Seventy-Seven” is now available for purchase).

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the meta-narrative between tennis’s biggest stars. Continue reading

The Vatican’s Cricket Team and Faith in Sports

I didn't know he needed keys

The Vatican cricket team’s emblem: the keys of St. Peter

How is sport like faith? Faith can be similarly used for cooperation, friendship, money, or play. In terms of fitness, if anyone has been to a religious institution, it’s likely they’ve done hard labor around the temple grounds, or played in a soccer game with friends after a particularly long religious function. You travel for faith, taking planes and buses and walking to Mecca or the Vatican or church the way you travel for sport, to the World Cup or the Olympics or to your brother’s little league game. You watch faith, at your church’s Christmas show or the religious stories that air on television during Christmas or during a christening, the way you watch sports in a bar or at the match, cheering with your brethren, although damning the other team under your breath is not seen as serious as doing the same in religious ceremonies — though both can end in violence, as evidenced by when the Red Sox won this year. And you can celebrate faith recreationally, on your own time: what is the difference between playing with a ball in your office, throwing it and catching and just engaging in some fun, compared to saying a silent prayer over your child’s head, or giving money to a homeless man, or telling the person you joined in religious ceremony that you love them?

I was dazzled by this story about the Vatican starting its own cricket team. Continue reading

Qatar’s Human Rights Abuses Show the Underbelly of Sports Diplomacy

Qatar 2022

Qatar is abusing the foreign workers building the 2022 soccer World Cup infrastructure. From the Guardian a few months ago:

Dozens of Nepalese migrant labourers have died in Qatar in recent weeks and thousands more are enduring appalling labour abuses, a Guardian investigation has found, raising serious questions about Qatar’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.

This summer, Nepalese workers died at a rate of almost one a day in Qatar, many of them young men who had sudden heart attacks. The investigation found evidence to suggest that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the single largest group of labourers in Qatar, face exploitation and abuses that amount to modern-day slavery, as defined by the International Labour Organisation, during a building binge paving the way for 2022.

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The Legacy of International Chess Play

This week marks another round in the FIDE World Chess Championship. Grantland writer Spike Friedman explains the game:

The FIDE World Chess Championship pits the reigning world champion against the winner of a qualifying round-robin tournament between eight of the top players in the world. The finals is a best-out-of-12 tournament with draws earning half a point. If the finals end in a draw, four rapid-chess matches are played as a tiebreaker. If those draw, then blitz chess, played with a three-minute starting clock, serves as the final tiebreaker.

Chess is a global fascination — the worldwide audience members of the games last Saturday, November 9th, crashed several websites. The Netherlands version of the BBC broadcast the game and boasted numbers of 700,000 watching –14% of their whole population.

However, the BBC is unimpressed, with 10 reasons why chess will always lack mass appeal for the sport. They hit on the lack of insight on the game, the fact that personal, local games in the park have more draw than a hermetically sealed international, and the romantic notions of chess – used in media to show how brainy, strategic someone can be – are definitely not supported watching in international play.


And really, it’s nothing compared to Ron Weasley’s chess playing in the first Harry Potter book

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