Post image for 2014 Olympics

2014 Olympics

January 21, 2014

With the world preparing for the 22nd Winter Olympic Games beginning Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, Indiana University experts in political science, journalism, sports communication, and more offer their views on a variety of issues, from Putin and politics to public relations. 


Olympics a challenge for Putin, at home and abroad

Vladimir Putin has a lot riding on the Sochi Olympics, says Dina Spechler, an associate professor of political science at IU Bloomington and an expert on Russian foreign policy. It is of the utmost importance to the Russian president that his country is presented to the world in a favorable light.

“Were there to be another terrorist incident in the Caucasus, or perpetrated by individuals from the Caucasus, it would be more than merely embarrassing to him,” Spechler says. “From the beginning of his first term in office in 2000, Putin has presented himself to the Russian people as a strongman or protector who can keep Russian citizens safe from terrorists and Russia itself safe from forces, such as rebel groups, that might lead to its disintegration. His legitimacy would be severely damaged if his competence in these areas were to be challenged in the eyes of his people.”

At the same time, Spechler says Putin is extremely sensitive to criticism from abroad.

“Confronted as he has been by substantial political dissent at home, he is concerned that attacks on Russia for its policies in any sphere, particularly challenges to the president’s human rights record or his willingness to tolerate political opposition, will only fuel such dissent,” she says. “Ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, he has been afraid of the possibility that demonstrations against the regime, encouraged by outsiders, could ultimately topple the government.”

Spechler says it is this concern that led Putin to issue a broad amnesty for political prisoners and to release from prison of one of his fiercest critics, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

“While Putin welcomes the opportunity for international attention to be focused on Russia, he is determined to see to it that the attention is positive and that any criticism be swiftly and fully rebutted,” she said.

Spechler’s research interests include comparative foreign policy and international relations. Her current research deals with the explanation of major changes in foreign policy and with competing tendencies in Russian foreign policy.


Will social media use be free and unfettered?

Galen Clavio, sports communication and marketing expert at IU Bloomington, says he is interested in seeing what role social media will play at the Olympic Games in Sochi.

“There have already been several mini-controversies about social media use, including a ban on reporters filming videos for social media accounts and extensive surveillance of all social media messages for security purposes,” said Clavio, assistant professor in the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “Many eyes will be on the Russian authorities to see if they allow social media communication to remain free and unfettered, particularly with the potential backdrops of political unrest and gay rights issues looming over these games.

“We’ve already seen social media force Olympic broadcast partner NBC to change the way it televises the Sochi Olympics. The 2012 London games made it obvious to NBC that they can no longer delay coverage of certain events just to put them in prime time. A lot more of the Olympics will be available on live broadcast television this year, and that’s mostly due to social media users complaining about knowing the results of events long before NBC broadcast them two years ago.”

The Sports Management, Marketing and Communication Program is in the School of Public Health’s Department of Kinesiology, where Clavio has conducted research on topics involving the use of Twitter in sports and the use of college athletes’ images in sports video games.


Companies use the Olympic model in building institutional solidarity

About 6,000 athletes from 85 countries are heading to Sochi to compete in nearly 90 sports. Since only three medals are awarded in each event, the vast majority of competitors will go home with only memories.

David Rubinstein, a clinical associate professor of management at IU’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington, notes that many of today’s top companies use the Olympic model in building institutional solidarity and longevity. The games also demonstrate that underdogs sometimes do come out on top.

“Human capital is very valuable,” Rubinstein says. “When an underdog competitor achieves the spotlight — regardless of outcome — it sends a message to everyone on the nation’s team that ‘I can do great — or better — when I try harder.’

“Likewise, in any firm, there are prima donnas and show horses, and others who are ‘Steady-Eddie’ plowhorses. But humans are more than they are defined to be. In the heat of competition, winners can emerge from unexpected places. When an underdog achieves the spotlight, the abilities of all of the organization’s members become heightened.

“For all the precious gold medals that brighten a nation’s medal points total, it is often that one extra bronze medal that pushes the nation to the top,” he adds. “In organizations, success often depends on whether the ‘little guy’ steps forward or steps back.”


For Russian President Putin, Olympics so far are a public relations blunder 

Originally the 2014 Sochi Olympics were intended to burnish Russian President Vladimir Putin’s legacy, impressing the world by showcasing his nation’s preparedness for the games. However, construction delays, the lack of snow, concerns about potential terrorism and bombings that have already occurred, a gay rights debate and other issues now threaten his vision, says Dennis Elliott, a public relations industry veteran now lecturing at the IU School of Journalism.

“The anti-gay commentary from Putin and the U.S. response has shifted the world’s attention and focus,” Elliott says. “What began as a positive and politically motivated campaign promoting the Sochi Olympics deteriorated to a crisis management situation — a crisis that Putin has contributed to and one that has implications to a variety of publics: athletes, countries, human rights groups and the media.

“The ‘crisis’ seemingly grows as it is clear that Putin and his team are collectively out of their element when it comes to crisis management on the world stage — or maybe they really don’t care or perceive the situation as a crisis at all,” he adds.

Leaders of several countries — including the United States and some European countries — plan to skip the opening ceremonies, some because of Moscow’s record on human rights.

“Today, the idea of a boycott will not gain momentum in the short time that exists prior to the Winter Games in Russia. … But public sentiment is not positive,” Elliott says. “Does Putin understand, or even care, about the downside potential for making the games his personal toy? Nothing persuades me at the moment that he does understand or care. Threat diplomacy does not positively persuade others.”

Elliott joined the journalism faculty as the Riley Visiting Professor in 2007 after a three-decade career in corporate public relations.


Insights on the Russian media and public opinion

A journalism professor who has studied Russian media for more than three decades says most of that nation’s citizens are looking forward to the Olympics with a strong sense of pride and aren’t paying attention to the issues that the rest of the world is scrutinizing.

“Just as the British did when they hosted the summer Olympics two years ago, they hope for a well-run Olympics, and they hope their team wins many medals,” says Owen Johnson, an associate professor of journalism and former director of the Russian and East European Institute at IU. “They want world television and visiting journalists to focus on the Olympic Games, not on Russian domestic issues.

“It must not be forgotten that the majority of Russians, especially outside of the big cities, continue to support Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is not about politics, but about traditional loyalty to the leader of the Russian state and a pride in their country,” Johnson says.

“Although it disturbs people in the United States, many Russians consider homosexuality abnormal or immoral. They see protests from the West about Russian treatment of homosexuality as anti-Russian actions, designed to make Russia and the Olympics look bad in the worldview.

“Russian media will be almost always upbeat about the Olympics in Sochi. They will focus on the successes of the Russian athletes and will print and broadcast numerous interviews with foreign visitors about how successful the Olympic experience has been.”

If organizations responsible for the recent bombings in Volgograd repeat such attacks elsewhere in Russia, visiting journalists will be challenged, especially should they decide to remain in Sochi.

“Russia recently denied readmission to a Western journalist (David Satter), apparently upset by his objective reporting about events in the country. While it would seem that this runs counter to other more positive actions by President Putin recently, this might be designed to make visiting journalists more cautious,” Johnson says. “Putin is less concerned about world public opinion than he is about his continued support in Russia.”

Johnson is a historian who focuses his research on the sociocultural roles and functions of journalism in Central and East European societies.


Low-altitude venues lessen chances for speedskating world records, pose challenges

Speedskating fans should expect to see few new world records at the Winter Games. Despite improvements in technology and the training levels of the athletes, speedskating competitors in Sochi, Russia, will face off at sea level, where air resistance is enough to slow times compared to races held at higher altitudes.

“All the world records in speedskating were set at Olympics or events that were held at altitude, like Salt Lake City or Calgary, where there is less air resistance slowing the skaters down,” says Robert Chapman, whose research at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington includes performance issues at altitude. “Usually, we think that altitude makes you slower, and that is true for distance running, but not for ‘high velocity’ events like speedskating. At lower altitudes, air resistance is a greater factor than the lower oxygen delivery to the muscles.

The air resistance also affects athletes in skill sports, requiring competitors in sports such as figuring skating, ski jumping and snowboarding to retool highly technical moves to accommodate more or less for air resistance. This year some events, such as figureskating, hockey and speedskating, will take place at sea level, while others, such as the biathlon and skiing events, will take place at higher altitudes.

“After thousands upon thousands of moves, certain motor patterns become ingrained for athletes,” Chapman says. “A different altitude will change the feedback they get from balance and proprioception. It’s something that needs to be incorporated into their practices.”

Chapman is an exercise physiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology. He has been conducting research on altitude and performance for almost 20 years, primarily examining altitude training and its effect on endurance sport athletes and performance.


Restrictions on news media covering the Olympics remain a genuine concern

The director of a research center that focuses on legal protection for the media is concerned about repression that restricts news coverage of sensitive issues in the Olympics’ host country.

“One concern about how the Olympic Games in Sochi will be covered is whether the Russian government will live up to the language in its media laws,” says Anthony Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies.

“Although Russia has language in its media laws indicating strong protections for a free press, the government has not been so protective in practice,” adds Fargo, also an associate professor of journalism. “Already this year, for example, a former editor of a news service in Yekaterinburg was convicted of extortion, fined 300,000 rubles and ordered not to practice journalism for two years, apparently in relation to critical reporting about officials in her community.

“The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has expressed concern several times in recent years about Russia’s failure to protect the press, including situations in which journalists have been assaulted or murdered and the perpetrators have remained free.

Already, a Russian Olympics official has said that social media would be banned at the 2014 Games, but Olympic Committee members quickly overruled him.

“It will also be interesting to see how the Russian government reacts should any of the reporting by Western media criticize Russia’s official anti-gay stance or appear to violate Russia’s anti-gay policies,” Fargo says.


Siting Olympics in Russia gives cover to repressive government

The Olympic movement espouses the goal of building a better and more peaceful world through sport. But staging the Winter Games in Russia, where the government jails political opponents and restricts freedom of speech, association and the press, undermines that ideal, says IU professor Leslie Lenkowsky.

“These games are being used to put a sheen on a country whose behavior is, in many ways, at odds with the noble ideals of the Olympics,” says Lenkowsky, who is a professor of practice in public affairs and philanthropy in the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin recently released some political prisoners, others remain jailed. Just this week, American journalist David Satter was barred from returning to Russia. Tensions are running high between Russia and some of its neighbors, including Ukraine.

Lenkowsky says it appears that Putin is trying to rebuild the old Soviet Union through political and economic means. “The Olympic Games legitimate this strategy. And Putin, like the Chinese government in 2008, understands this.”

When the Olympics are used to put a friendly face on repressive regimes, Lenkowsky says, it raises questions about whether the games can achieve their idealistic aspirations. The questions have been raised before, as when Hitler used the 1936 Berlin Olympics for PR. And they won’t go away as long as the International Olympic Committee balks at considering such issues in its siting decisions.

The IOC may insist it’s not a political body and can’t make those judgments, says Lenkowsky, “but the truth of the matter is, when they don’t make those judgments, they will lend themselves to being used.”

He recalled that dissident Natan Sharansky, after his release from a Soviet prison, said inmates cheered in 1983 when Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” “There are still people in Russian jails,” Lenkowsky says. “And they will be disheartened when the Olympic torch arrives in Sochi.

Lenkowsky’s research areas include nonprofits and public policy, civil society, and civic engagement.