Sports: Gold Medals, Double Standards, and the Russians

Culture Watch

Mr. Foglesong is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

The heated controversy that erupted this month over the judging of Olympic figure skating highlights the persistence of a historic tendency in the West to think the worst of the Russians.

When a Russian figure skating pair was awarded the gold medal over a Canadian pair who skated a cleaner long program, commentators leaped to the conclusion that the appealing young Canadians had been robbed by a sinister Eastern conspiracy. Ignoring the fact that Poland is now a member of NATO, American and Canadian journalists insinuated that Russian intrigue had produced the gold medal outcome through collusion with the Polish, Chinese, and Ukrainian judges.

American news magazines acknowledged in cover stories that there was no solid evidence of Muscovite misconduct. They also recognized that vote trading and outcome fixing have been pervasive in the skating world. Yet in breathless outrage they still pointed fingers at the shady practices of"the former Iron Curtain countries."

To at least one veteran Russian sports correspondent in Utah, the"hysteria" in American newspapers indicated that the cold war was actually not over. Back in Russia, the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets acidly commented,"It looks as if North America has returned to the Cold War years with an inevitable witch-hunt.".

During that superpower rivalry, many Americans seemed to regard their own nuclear missiles targeted on the Soviet Union as necessary, defensive weapons, while Russian missiles were dangerous, offensive threats. At the height of the cold war, Soviet rulers were indignant that Americans felt entitled to place missiles in Turkey, near the borders of the U.S.S.R., while they went to the brink of nuclear war over the Soviet shipment of missiles to Cuba. And at the onset of the U.S.-Soviet conflict, key American leaders believed that a U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America was only natural while a Soviet-dominated zone in Eastern Europe was intolerable.

Americans were not always inclined to be hypercritical of Russia, which seemed a valuable ally against haughty Britain until the late nineteenth century. Perceptions changed when expanding American and Russian interests collided in Northeast Asia, massive Jewish immigration drew attention to anti-Semitism in the tsarist empire, and journalist George Kennan famously stigmatized the inhumanity of the Siberian exile system.

The shift in American views of Russia culminated in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt and others became as irate over the treacherously prolonged Russian occupation of Manchuria as television viewers were last week over the egregious miscarriage of justice at the Olympics. In the same year, news of a bloody pogrom at Kishinev, where hundreds of Jews were killed and injured by rampaging mobs, spurred Americans to denounce the supposedly unparalleled Russian savagery in protest meetings across the country.

An important side-effect of righteous indignation at Russian conduct was to push into the background doubts or misgivings about American actions of the period, including the violent suppression of nationalists in the new U.S. colony of the Philippines (1899-1902), the widespread lynching of blacks, and race riots that devastated African-American sections of Wilmington, Atlanta, and other cities.

Blackening Russian behavior appears to have similar effects today. As some columnists have suggested, the cathartic anger over ice skating injustice offers welcome diversion for people whose faith in American virtues has been shaken by the Enron revelations, the plagiarism by prize-winning historians, or the Salt Lake Olympic committee's bribing of International Olympic Committee officials.

Russian claims about Western double standards are not always balanced and convincing. When Russians complained, for example, that Western journalists and human rights activists rushed to condemn the brutal Russian wars in Chechnya but were much slower to investigate civilian casualties of the NATO air war in Yugoslavia, they disregarded the vastly greater scale of collateral damage in Chechnya.

However, Russians do have a point when they object to being treated as a sort of evil twin of the United States. As the repeated recent reminders of the American ice hockey team's glorious Olympic victory over the Russians in 1980 suggest, competition with Russia has figured significantly in American national self-definition over the last century. In that light, the cold war will only be over when we stop using Russia as a sort of villainous alter ego.

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