The Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games once again illustrated the stark contrast between the two competing narratives of these global events.
The first, of course, is sports – the athletes, their heart-wrenching back stories, and memorable performances. The other is the event itself – the host nation, its preparation, politics, and policies.
This second narrative has all too frequently become the predominant image of any Olympic Games, assigning success or failure before the Olympic cauldron is even lit. Issues ranging from security to human rights, from economics to the environment, command ever more attention by media, spurred on by activist groups that contrast these social concerns against the values of the Olympic movement.
On those issues, the scrutiny of Sochi was perhaps more intense than for any prior Games, including powerful and important issues of security, gay rights, widening inequality, and corruption. As in many Games past, some of these concerns were borne out on the ground in Sochi. From inadequate hotel preparation to alarming images of security forces beating protesters, the identity of these Games seemed to be inextricably defined by #sochiproblems.
But 2014 is hardly the first time coverage of the Games created controversy away from the competition. The lead-up to Athens was wrought with security and infrastructure concerns, while Beijing generated countless stories on human rights and censorship. Even the Vancouver 2010 Games saw significant opposition by those with environmental or land-use concerns, albeit these were most intense within Canada itself.
As it has since the Athens Games of 1896, the focus quickly turned to sport in Sochi once the competitions began. Measured by social media analytics, conversations related to the most prevalent issues before the Games had declined significantly by the second day of the Games: a 40% drop in discussion of infrastructure, a 66% reduction on human rights issues, and a 90% decrease on security.
Even with the many real problems we all witnessed in Sochi, the reality on the ground was much smoother than you might believe from media reports. Despite the many hilarious tweets about hotel hijinks, the sporting venues were impressive: Olympic Park was clean, secure, and accessible. Millions of viewers around the world saw Russia win team figure skating gold, not to mention the epic USA-Russia men's hockey match; Team USA's historic performance in bobsled; and other signature moments of these Games.
Yet, the Games in Sochi may indeed represent a different legacy from those that have come before.
The International Olympic Committee has said consistently that the Games are about sports, not politics. But in this age of hashtags and hacktivism, it's easier than ever to organize dissent and harder than ever for Olympic leadership and sponsors to stand silent. It's also clear that, in this same environment, the Games have an enormous potential to focus needed attention on the real human issues being raised.
We may have entered an era where the Games can begin to serve as a focal point for the achievement of human potential beyond sports. The new president of the IOC, Thomas Bach of Germany, has given strong indications that he will take a more active role in making the Games an agent of social change beyond sports. And given the power and draw of the Olympic Games, there's tremendous potential for holding the nations that participate, and their leaders, to the same high standards as the athletes who compete. The Games can be a powerful catalyst for change, especially in transformative times.
For sponsors, too, who increasingly acknowledge the need to state their values explicitly, being part of an Olympic movement that embraces these larger issues of human potential makes their sponsorships more valuable and important.
We will not solve the most pressing global issues by turning the Olympic Games into a singularly political spectacle. These Games are global, and different nations and cultures have diverse views about which issues are important and to what degree. In fact, many of the social issues that energized North American activists around the Sochi Games failed to generate similar responses in other regions.
But even in a totally connected world, the Olympic Games represent a rare opportunity to focus global attention on social issues within the positive framework of the competition of the Games. Given the universal nature of sports and the way in which the Games have unified the world for more than a century, the Olympic Games may in the future provide us even greater ways to bring humans together, create a better world, and help us all achieve our full human potential.JJ Carter is the San Francisco-based regional president of FleishmanHillard. He is a veteran communicator of six Olympic Games, where he has worked on behalf of clients including the Host Organizing Committee, National Governing bodies of sport, and numerous Olympic sponsors.