Pixel Tracker

Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 10:40 pm | Fair 45º


Susan Estrich: World Watching Ukraine, While Watching Russia’s Olympics

This is not exactly a newsflash in my house, where, before he left for college, my son had to teach me how to turn on the TV. The thing is, I really don’t want to watch the Olympics, even though I spent many of my happier childhood hours watching figure skating on the black-and-white.

It’s not the athletes’ fault. They are doing their best, given everything. But this Olympics, for all the wrong but obvious reasons, seems to be more about the place it’s being held than the people who are competing. This is the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. It belongs to Sochi.

And therein lies my problem.

Why would I want to watch an endless infomercial featuring people who we as a nation don’t actually trust very much? I’m not faulting the journalists. They are doing their best. But the story is what it is.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is bigger than any halfpipe medal winner. The gap between appearance and reality in Russia, the underlying regional tensions, the guessing games about how much it cost and whether the economy can or can’t bear it (the modern equivalent of the 1980s arms race) — all of this has much higher stakes than the events. This is about Russia’s role in the world. The fact that the rioting in Kiev is unfolding alongside the slalom in Sochi — both on television screens around the world — only underscores the obvious.

Politics and the Olympics? Yes. Of course. There is always politics, including the politics of the decision to pretend there isn’t. The questions are: Whose? To what end? For what good?

The Chinese had a whiff of cleaner air for their Olympics. You always paint the fences on the parade route. In the best of circumstances, the community ends up with “marvelous” facilities built for the international events. For that reason, the Olympic games have become a positive symbol for supporting local athletics, as they did in the wake of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, when many of the facilities, including those at USC, were opened to the community (a fact much noted eight years later, when riots that surrounded the USC campus geographically left the university untouched).

The problem with the Sochi Olympics is that, this being Putin, the politics are inescapable, and the stakes are real and significant. You can’t just laugh it off the way you can so much of politics. It all matters. And this makes the use of the Olympics as propaganda all the more troubling.

I was driving home the other night, listening to an interview with the Russian equivalent of Mitt Romney or Peter Ueberroth — the guy who pulled the Sochi Olympics together. The interviewer tried every way he politely could, but it didn’t matter: This guy was going to do his spiel, and that was that. He was not going to tell you whether it was $52 billion, which tends to mean more. He earnestly urged that politics and sports remain separate, and this only moments before pointing out Putin’s enthusiastic presence at the games and proudly anointing the event as proof of Russia’s ability to do what has never been done before in terms of building so much so fast. Russia is back. It built a military complex on the back of a needy nation, and now it’s managed to build an Olympic edifice, underneath which is a simmering cauldron.

I certainly hope and pray things go well for the rest of the Olympics. I hope Americans win many medals. But even more, I hope the fact that the eyes of the world are on Russia ends up saving lives in Ukraine. If it must be political, let it be to some good end.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.