The Movable Feast – Results of the London Olympics

Regrettably, politics are coming back to big-time sport. The Olympics are first and foremost a celebration. There are no defeated or losing countries by definition. The achievements of a national team will not make the life of ordinary people easier or better in any country.

The Valdai International Discussion Club asked President of the Union of Right Forces Leonid Gozman to share his impressions of the Olympics and his view of the role politics played in the athletes’ results.

What do you think about the performance of Russian athletes at the London Olympics?

My position is as follows – we have won bronze, rather than lost gold! I have shared our athletes’ happiness and commiseration and I think we should look kindly on their victories. I think many things happened during the Games that were frankly unacceptable.

During the first half of the Games when our athletes were not able to muster their strength and were stuck in the second dozen in the overall ranking, I did not see any of the support we so badly needed for our team in our official media. The general line was like this: “You’re good when you win but if you don’t win, then you are not one of ours really.” This attitude to our team is obviously against the very spirit of the Olympic Games. Much was said about the bad performance of our athletes. They were blamed for poor training, for failing to follow the appropriate sports regime, etc. A fraction of a second is a relative notion and cannot testify to the work that our guys put in over the last years. If our athletes’ training triggered such heated debates, why didn’t anyone ask what Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko was doing in his position?

Why does it matter for us so much how many gold medals Russia has won? Remember, the athletes from the German Democratic Republic or East Germany were always a match for Soviet and American sportsmen, but this did not stop East Germans fleeing to West Germany under machine gunfire. West Germans lived in a much less athletic country, but I don’t remember any of them trying to escape to East Germany. I can understand if we take pride in sending the Curiosity rover to Mars, because this is an achievement of hundreds of thousands over many years, rather that of one genius inventor. This event is the success of the entire national educational system and the cultural achievement of a nation. It is no less important than the first space flight of Yury Gagarin in 1961 or the first flight of Neil Armstrong to the Moon. Sports victories pale into insignificance when compared with these kinds of breakthroughs. The achievements of a national team will not make the life of ordinary people easier or better in any country.

How far have politics permeated the Games?

Regrettably, politics are coming back to big-time sport. In Soviet time, the confrontation of the two blocs was also settled every few years in sports arenas all over the world. It was followed by a period of political lull but now this is all coming back. Again, we hear the question: “Will we defeat the Americans?” I saw a commentary after a semi-final basketball match: “Lithuania has been defeated!” It is absolutely unacceptable to say these kinds of things. When one team beats another it doesn’t mean that the country is defeated. Lithuania is still standing strong and, you know, I wish we lived as they do! Sports competitions should not become a model of war when one nation is fighting another. The Olympics are first and foremost a celebration. There are no defeated or losing countries by definition.

It was not so long ago that Russia held top ranking positions in sport. Why have these rankings now fallen so dramatically?

I believe in the principle that it is enough for the state to touch anything to make it ineffective. Of course, there are areas where its involvement is necessary, such as defense, medicine and education. But an excessive number of ministers and other officials will never do any good. Do you remember a wonderful phrase by satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky? He said “what’s really funny is that we have a minister of meat and dairy products and he even looks pretty good.” This is both paradoxical and funny, isn’t it? This is the same thing - we have a sports minister and an enormous number of people who are feeding off sports.

Universities in many countries, in particular, in the United States, invite young talented athletes to study there on favorable terms, sometimes even for free, on condition, of course, that later on they will represent their respective university and, possibly, their country in sports. Does Russia plan to introduce something similar to keep its own talents at home and attract more from abroad?

Given that we actively borrow the most ridiculous and ineffective practices of other countries, why not introduce this one too? I think inviting athletes to study for free is both bad and wrong. University students should study sciences rather than do pole vaulting. They should see their primary responsibility as getting a good education, not in sports achievements. A talented athlete may get some preference in enrolment based on the following logic – okay if you are a bit behind in physics, but you have to train for 14 hours per day, we’ll give you a chance to improve because talent must be given a chance. But I think it’s totally wrong to take athletes on just because they are good at sports but have no ability in physics, for example. They will just wear the seat of their trousers and deprive others of the opportunity to study.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.