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Editorial: Russia's Olympics can't escape politics

Olympic rings stand in front of the airport

Olympic rings stand in front of the airport in Adler outside Sochi. Credit: Getty Images, 2013

The ugly side of Olympic politics reared its head again last week.

Two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in the Russian city of Volgograd, about 400 miles from Sochi, the resort city set to host the Winter Games that begin in five weeks. Attention has focused on the Muslim separatist leader in Chechnya who ordered his followers to use "maximum force" to disrupt the Winter Olympics, the latest step in a two-decade campaign of violence.

The killings were horrifying and deplorable, and it is incumbent on Russia to ensure that Sochi's athletes, coaches and spectators are safe during the Olympic fortnight.

In condemning the attacks, Olympic officials said the Games showcase brotherhood via sport, but they routinely have been hijacked, sometimes violently, for political purposes -- the assassinations of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian militants in Munich in 1972, the bomb deployed by anti-abortion, anti-gay terrorist Eric Rudolph in Atlanta in 1996. Adolf Hitler planned to use the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to showcase Aryan superiority; then black American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also seeks to use the Olympics as a political stage. Ironically, he wanted Sochi to showcase the "new" Russia and its transformation into a modern and well-governed country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But Putin, like others before him, is discovering the Olympics spotlight also illuminates a nation's warts. See Beijing in 2008 and its air pollution.

Putin, whose record of stifling all manner of dissent is well-documented, tried to defuse criticism by freeing jailed political opponents and the punk band Pussy Riot in the run-up to Sochi. That hasn't worked, either, judging by continuing criticism of Putin's human rights record from the band members and others.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama is using Sochi as a stage of his own, to signal his disapproval of Russia's anti-gay policies. Obama will send tennis legend Billie Jean King and former figure skater Brian Boitano, two of the country's best-known athletes who are gay, to represent the United States at opening ceremonies. But the official delegation will include no senior U.S. government officials. History shows the degree of the snub: First lady Michelle Obama was in London in 2012, Vice President Joe Biden led the delegation at the previous Winter Games in Vancouver, and both Presidents Bush attended the Games in Beijing.

Obama deserves applause for sending a potent but peaceful message to Putin and other Russian authorities that their treatment of gays is reprehensible. The gesture is rooted in other powerfully symbolic Olympic protests. The Black Power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on a Mexico City medal stand in 1968 forced Americans to confront our nation's mistreatment of African-Americans. Other protests -- such as the multination boycotts of the Summer Games of 1976, 1980 and 1984 -- were peaceful but cynical. Occasionally, the Olympics have sparked real change; South Korea, anxious to welcome the world to Seoul in 1988, turned from dictatorship to democracy. Putin, alas, is a most unlikely candidate to permanently change his stripes.

The most we can hope for in Sochi is that he lives up to his promise of a safe Olympics. Narrowly defined, that's probably a guarantee he can deliver. But terrorism is psychological. Insurgents don't have to attack the Games themselves to disrupt them. Russia already is on edge.

Already, there is a pall on Sochi.