Sochi Olympic protest zones should make us worry about IOC, not national regimes

Your freedom, our repression. agrossman

With the clock ticking down to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in February, recent announcements by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach and Russian and American presidents Putin and Obama have underlined the problematic relationship between sport, protest, and freedom of speech.

In Lausanne, Bach welcomed the Sochi Organising Committee’s decision to set up special protest zones, telling a news conference that the zones will mean that “everybody can express his or her free opinion” during the games. In Moscow, the Russian parliament unanimously voted an amendment to an amnesty law, extending it to first time offenders convicted for acts of hooliganism, meaning the 30 Greenpeace activists and the jailed members of Pussy Riot were released. And in Washington, Obama’s spokesman announced that Billie Jean King will be a part of the official US delegation to the opening ceremony, in a clear symbol of America’s repudiation of Russia’s recent criminalisation of “gay propaganda”.

On the face of it, these decisions look like small victories for democratic expression; yet we may see each as problematic. Putin’s amnesty can fairly easily be seen as a self-serving cosmetic gesture, designed to buy a change in the news narrative – certainly, this is the view of Pussy Riot – and to forestall the prospect that Greenpeace in particular would find a way of disrupting the games. Obama’s gesture, meanwhile, looks exactly that; like other countries who have taken a stand against Russia’s homophobic laws, including France and Germany, the US has stopped well short of the sort of boycott that repeatedly characterised games during the Cold War.

But perhaps the introduction of protest zones as a hard won concession is most worrying of all. Indeed, rather than focus on what the Sochi games tell us about Russia’s repressive and anti-democratic regime, we should be more concerned at the increasing practice of zoning protest at these events, at the IOC’s active promotion of this policy and at how spatial restriction is being used to effectively neutralise democratic expression.

Sport, protest, and ‘conditional rights’

Certainly, despite what organisations such as FIFA and the IOC have been insisting for years, these decisions underline the close relationship between sport, politics and protest. Even more so, they underline the extraordinary power of “sports mega-events”, for example Olympic Games and the football World Cup, to provide opportunities and leverage for protest groups – and at the same time, to place restrictions on collective civic freedoms, and not just in autocratic regimes.

In the run-up to the London Games, the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner (and National Olympic Security Coordinator) Chris Allison summarised the Met’s policy: while the police “fully appreciate people have a right to protest”, this is a “conditional right”. While we might expect the conditional nature of this right to be dependent on whether a protest is lawful, Allison introduced a new condition: that it must not spoil the entertainment of others. According to Allison, the democratic right to protest “does not give you the right to stop the Olympics happening, it does not give you the right to stop 10.8m spectators going and seeing the best athletes from across the world.”

We should have every reason to be worried by this seemingly new condition. Protest, by its very nature, depends above all on its disruptive force, its capacity to expose what seems “common sense” as the result of relationships of power and inequality and oppression. To do this, protesters need either to physically stop something from happening, or to create their own event and gain public support by attracting media attention. What right, we might ask, do protesters have to stop spectators from enjoying a horse race, or international rugby test matches? Yet the struggle for women’s suffrage in Britain, and the international campaign against the South African apartheid regime, both depended in some measure on protesters spoiling the enjoyment of spectators. These protests would be all but incomprehensible without grasping the symbolic importance of professional sport, its power to include and exclude, to reach and represent.

Pussy Riot: where art meets witchcraft. Igor Mukhin

But to gain this access to an audience, protesters must first gain access to the arena. In what is probably still the most famous example of a protester disrupting a sports event, Emily Wilding Davison’s fatal collision with the King’s Horse in 1913, was enabled by the openness of the racecourse. As the Manchester Guardian reported the next day, the “free-and-easy habits of Tattenham Corner are one of the points about the Derby that greatly impress foreign visitors accustomed to the regimental methods of the racecourse police on the Continent”.

What was true 100 years ago is equally true today. Crowds at global sports events are now highly segmented, controlled and policed, as concerns over security and the protection of lucrative sponsorship deals have made protest inside sports venues increasingly difficult. Opportunities for protest are therefore increasingly to be found away from venues: for Tattenham Corner, read the many protests across the world against the Beijing Torch relay in 2008, Trenton Oldfield’s boat race swim in 2012, or the repeated ability of protesters to gain leverage by threatening to block the route of the Tour de France. Such events are vulnerable because they offer media attention, whilst the spaces in which they take place are difficult (if not impossible) to secure and police.

The terror trap

But we should not think, as news reports have generally done, that zoning is just what authoritarian regimes, the Russians and the Chinese, do. Protest zones at Olympic Games were first introduced in 2002, at the Salt Lake City Winter Games, where protesters were restricted to a number of special areas, largely out of the eye of the local public and global media. In a regime like Putin’s Russia, zoning appears attractive, an alternative to no freedom of speech; but it is also consonant with western discourses of securitised liberty, where spectacular events enable new restrictions on movement and speech to be introduced.

More broadly, Anne-Marie Broudehoux has pointed out how the landscaping of Olympic parks fulfills the same function of spatial control: spectators are moved from one zone to another, separated by artificial waterways that can only be crossed at specific, closeable points. This landscaping of moats and drawbridges is of course, carried out in the name of efficiency and security, easing spectator flow and protecting visitors and participants from armed attack. But it is also carried out to protect money and reputation: landscaping and zoning also establishes what may be consumed and promoted, what may be said and what may be done.

Predictably, the timing and proximity of the Volgograd bombings to the Sochi Games has already produced an intensification of security measures and restrictions on freedom of movement in Russia, as the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and the July 7 London bombings in their turn directly affected civic freedoms for the Salt Lake and London Games. Simon Jenkins, in a typically caustic and provocative piece in the Guardian, recently criticised the Sochi Games for their corruption, vanity, chauvinism and extravagant spending, and their magnetism for what he called the “dark forces of protest and terror”. A slip of the keyboard? Perhaps; but the conflation of protest with terrorism is typical of the security rhetoric of games staging. This is similar to London 2012 where, as Jules Boykoff noted, protest was sandwiched between terrorism and organised crime in the Metropolitan police’s list of “key threats”.

For those wishing to exercise their democratic rights to protest, the trap is obvious. To insist upon free speech at such events is not only to spoil everyone’s fun, it is also to put their lives at risk. Protest zones are an extension of contemporary corporate sport’s logic of control and surveillance: you have the right to say what you want, but only if you first adhere to the terms set down by the organising committee. The IOC, supposedly a beacon of human rights, has long been an active participant in the erosion of these same rights, as Olympic hosts seek to offer a sanitised spectacle of organisational efficiency.

As citizens, we should not just be thinking not about free speech, but about the conditions in which these freedoms are offered, and about who is excluded from these freedoms. If we really wish to protect freedom of speech as the cornerstone of democratic society, we must also protect the freedom to be seen and to be heard speaking, and thus the freedom of protesters to spoil the enjoyment of others. To do anything else is to reduce citizenship to consumption. Protest zones do not protect free speech: they silence it.