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Controversy is unofficial Olympic partner

U of T expert says games rife with fear, intolerance

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Although some people maintain that politics has no place in sport, the modern-era Olympics are almost never free from controversy, said Bruce Kidd, a former Canadian Olympian, Olympic historian and professor at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

If one considers controversies around the host country, some of the global tensions in the world and controversies in individual sports, “at least one and probably two pertain to every Games,” said Kidd, citing tensions in Vancouver over the role of the Aboriginal people and their land and the exclusion of women’s ski jumping from the Games, as well as the human rights concerns in Beijing.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is stirring up controversy, said Kidd, whether it is through his LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) policies or through fear over security. He is also dusting off some of the language used during the Cold War.

“You hear things like ‘Russia is different than the West, and they want us to be just like them,’” said Kidd.

Given such a climate, he believes it is more important than ever for Canadians to speak out.

“Most people in Russia completely discount American voices because of the history between the two countries, so we have an obligation to make ourselves heard,” he said.

Kidd, himself, is personally involved in social justice work related to the Olympics. He continues to work with the Maquilla Solidarity Network to ensure fair labour standards in the production of clothing and souvenirs worn and sold at the Olympics. It is a long-term initiative and, said Kidd, “The Canadian Olympic Committee isn’t there yet.”

In the face of Putin’s anti-propaganda law, Kidd is on the steering committee of a Vancouver-based Olympic Pride House initiative. The group has garnered the support of Vancouver city council for a declaration that, among other things, calls upon the Olympic committee to amend its charter to “explicitly include a non-discrimination clause in regard to LGBTQ persons and sexual and gender identity” and to ensure the safety of all LGBT athletes in Sochi.

Kidd said that overall security costs in Sochi will be astronomical: “the G-20 times 10.”

There are a lot of reasons for doing security, but it cuts down on access and the rights of participants, and it reinforces fear,” said Kidd.

He is saddened by the contradiction between the spirit of the Olympic Games and the reality.

“The Olympic movement as I lived and experienced it is a peace movement, an effort to bring people together to promote peace under the auspices of culture and sport,” he said. “It was meant to help people understand each other so that when conflict arose, we could have negotiations and mediation, not war.

“Today, the only way we can pursue that aspiration is within an armed camp.”

This article is one in a series. (Read about Jayna Hefford and risk at the Winter Olympics.) 

Elaine Smith is a writer with the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education at the University of Toronto.