As the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in Sochi draw near and excitement for our athletes builds, some darker undertones to these games and to the host nation’s policies provide both challenges and teachable moments.
Parenting would be so much easier if the only thing we had to cope with during the Olympics was the constant giggling of our kids over the correct pronunciation of the name of Russian President Vladimir Putin (Poot-in).
Unfortunately, Mr. Putin is arguably one of the most controversial political leaders in the world today whose actions have been hurdles for parents to navigate.
I should have known back in August of 2012 that this was going to be a painfully long Olympic run for parents when we had to explain to kids why the pretty girls in a punk band named Pussy Riot were on trial for speaking against Putin’s policies.
As a journalist, who speaks passable Russian, who covered politics from Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and whose great-grandfather was a dissident who fled that nation under charges of sedition, I figured I was qualified to cope with basic kid questions.
I quickly learned that no parent was ready for Pussy Riot.
It was just my luck that the first question fired at me about Russia wasn’t even from my own child.
At a chess summer camp, where I volunteer as an instructor, a 7-year-old came running into the chess room to ask me why international chess icon, Russian Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, was dragged to a Russian paddy wagon in handcuffs for trying to attend the verdict “on a bunch of cats.”
I had previously asked the kids to start looking for references to chess in the news, film, and art.
The little boy proudly brought a computer printout of a news photo to show everyone how Mr. Kasparov was manhandled into a police van by a pack of Russian officers and hauled off to the slammer.
I explained that, by American standards of civil rights, the girls in the band and Kasparov hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, I explained, what they did was brave in the way many American heroes have been over the centuries.
However, in Russia and other countries, the rules are often different and freedoms are limited.
Everybody seemed to get it and the subject was closed.
However, my Russian chess ruckus paled in comparison to one I witnessed more recently. At a local supermarket, I overheard a stunned mom stammer through an explanation to her little girl on why Russia’s president “made rainbows against the law.”
I overhead the little girl ask her mom about Putin “hating rainbows” while in the checkout line at a rather posh local supermarket with flat screen TVs at the checkout area to keep customers entertained while waiting.
One TV blared a news story on a gay Russian protester being detained for unfurling a rainbow flag (symbolizing gay pride) during the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Putin’s hometown of Voronezh, 690 miles north of Sochi.
The Russian law, passed last year, outlaws what it describes as "propaganda" of "non-traditional sexual relations" around minors, according to the Associated Press.
In the interviews, Putin repeatedly said he was “protecting children.” As if some mad, gay army was on the march to Sochi, carrying rainbow torches and singing show tunes to children all the way.
I was very glad not to be that mom in the supermarket.
However, the most worrisome aspect of the Games is not about gay rights, girl bands, or grandmasters, but the relentless news chatter about security concerns for our athletes in Russia.
Due to the fear of attack from rebel forces in the neighboring Caucasus, Putin has devised “one of the most sweeping and ambitious security operations ever launched,” according to an article in the February 3 issue of The Christian Science Monitor Weekly magazine.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, kids have a very keen radar for words such as “terrorists” and “lock-down.”
Putin put a $2 billion security operation code-named “ring of steel” around the Olympic venues, isolating them and placing everything in the region under constant surveillance.
Unfortunately, in his efforts to allay fears, Putin may actually accentuate them for kids who hear too much announcer banter about “lock-downs” around Mother Russia.
The Sochi lock-down means that local residents can’t leave their towns for the duration of the Games, leaving most Russians to watch the Games on TV, according to the Monitor article.
Like many parents, I would love for the Olympics to be about nothing more than the Games, good will, and friendly international rivalry over medal counts.
Sadly, Putin isn’t making that job easy at all.
The best we can do for our kids is to change the channel when the security talk gets too intense.
While we love the Games and the fellowship for which they stand, we need to be mindful that the messages our kids take away from them are more about the unity of many nations, than cowering together in fear.