Winter Olympics in Sochi Stoke Memories of Cold War Rivalry

The Sochi Winter Games begin Feb. 7, with the host Russians under pressure to reassert its old glory on and off the field.

For many who recall the United States’ Cold War-fueled boycott of Russia’s 1980 Olympics — and the Russians’ retaliatory shunning of the 1984 games in Los Angeles — the 2014 Winter Olympics have the potential to reconcile three-decade-old wounds.

The Games, taking place at the Russian resort town of Sochi, mark the first time an American Olympic team will compete on the soil of the former Soviet rival.

Even if the athletes themselves don't recognize the significance, politicians, scholars and many fans will.

Proxy battles

A lot has changed since the old days, when international sports were seen as a proxy for the battle between American-style capitalism and Soviet-style Communism. Russia and America remain fierce adversaries in the post-Cold War era, but the roles, experts say, have shifted.

Russia, a traditional Winter Olympics superpower, has fared relatively poorly recently, and views the Sochi Games as a way to reassert itself — similar to its diplomatic flexing with the United States over Syria and Edward Snowden, and its passing over antigay laws, which sparked an international outcry.

America, meanwhile, aims to maintain its dominance on the global stage. Over the past decade, Team USA has become a Winter Olympics force — in Vancouver four years ago, its record 37 medals made it the overall winner for the first time since 1932. Germany was second in Vancouver with 30 total medals, followed by Canada’s 26.

Russia finished sixth, with 15, widely considered an embarrassment. That showing fueled expectations for the Russians, as 2014 hosts, to redeem themselves on a grand scale.

“The idea that the politics still have meaning, the sense that whose political and economic system and infrastructure is better will play out in international sports, is still as real for the Russians as it is for the United States,” said Philip D’Agati, who researches the relationship between the Olympics and politics at Northeastern University.

Hockey rivalry

Nowhere will that be more apparent than in the Olympic hockey rink. There aren’t many team sports at the Winter Games, and hockey has historically represented the wider battle for worldwide bragging rights.

The Soviet Union reigned over men’s ice hockey for decades, winning gold medals in seven of the eight Winter Olympics from 1956 to 1988. But in the two decades since the republic’s breakup, Russia has won just one silver and one bronze (and shared in the 1992 Unified Team gold). It hasn’t played in a gold-medal game since 2002.

In Sochi, as the hosts, the Russians are expected to win men's hockey gold, with Canada, Sweden and the United States expected to challenge them for the title.

There are plenty of individual events where the two countries will vie for medals, including figure skating. But the bulk of the Russians' medal haul will likely come, as it has in the past, in less publicized competitions, like cross-country skiing and the biathlon, experts say.

There will also be opportunities in several new events: the ski half-pipe, women’s ski jumping, the biathlon mixed relay, a figure skating team event and the luge team relay.

Sochi's challenges

Because Sochi is a subtropical resort, there are also concerns that the weather will cooperate. The Russians have been stockpiling snow just in case.

At the same time, they are scrambling to finish construction of the Sochi complex, from roads to event spaces.

There are also concerns over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on freedom of expression, and the country’s new laws banning “gay propaganda.”

Russian officials said the laws are supposed to protect children and will not infringe on athletes or fans. The International Olympic Committee makes a point of not interfering with local laws, and has reminded athletes of rules against making political statements at the games. A few Americans, including skier Bode Miller and figure skater Ashley Wagner, have spoken out against the laws in pre-Olympics media events. In the days leading up to the Games, protestors have called on Olympic sponsors such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola to take a stand against the laws.

Cold War reverberations

Some called for another American boycott, but the idea has not gained much political traction. With the hindsight of 30 years, many historians regard the United States' decision not to attend the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow as a mistake.

The move, by President Jimmy Carter, was in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Several other countries, including Canada, Japan and West Germany, joined the U.S. But the Moscow Games otherwise went on without a hitch, and many consider the event a relative success.

Four years later, the Soviets retaliated with a boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

The successive snubs represented a low point of the Olympic movement, which considers itself above politics.

In many ways, that's more true today than at any point of the Olympic history. The Games are now a huge, global television event, and a commercial leviathan. Their economic impact has diminished the role of nations' political conflicts, said Robert Edelman, a history professor at the University of California at San Diego and an expert on the sporting relationship between the United States and Russia.

"It's not freighted the way the Olympics once were," Edelman said.

This time around, in Sochi, the pressure comes more from a country's expectations of itself. The Russians will set the tone with the Opening Ceremony, which will likely reflect the former Soviet republic's long history of dominance in international winter competition.

And then the athletes will try to put that history behind them.

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