What NBC Won’t Tell You About the Opening Ceremonies

9 minute read

For more on the geopolitics of the Olympics, follow the author on Twitter @ianbremmer and @eurasiagroup where he will be live-tweeting the Opening Ceremonies.

Here in the United States, the Parade of Nations at the Sochi Olympic Opening Ceremonies will be shown by NBC broadcasters who will narrate the long march of more than 80 countries with innocuous facts. Did you know the last name of Icelanders is derived from their father’s first name?How about that Mexico’s only competing athlete is…a 55-year-old of royal German descent who moonlights as a pop singer?

What if the flag-waving event, which was watched by an estimated 1 billion people when the Olympics last convened in London, was treated not as “an entertainment spectacle,” as NBC has publicly promised, but as something that showed the actual relationships between these nations as they parade before the world?

Here’s how the procession might look if the countries were grouped by the most geopolitically important—and scandalous—issues that face the world today. Just keep these political realities in mind as the flag bearers wave, Putin smiles, and Bob Costas sticks to the script (for the most part…).

The pariahs

After years of tightening sanctions that have suffocated its economy, perhaps Iran won’t be an outcast of the international community for much longer. The world’s biggest make-or-break geopolitical moment on the horizon is the outcome of Iranian nuclear negotiations. The nuclear program’s progress, sanctions’ success, and the election of President Hassan Rouhani have dramatically upped the probability of a deal (I would definitely peg it at better than even odds). But bear in mind, there will be risks along the way, and if the deal falls apart, the risk of military action will rise. While some might be more inclined towards an Iranian Olympic victory in this auspicious political climate, that won’t be true of Israel, who will be going head-to-head with Iran in alpine skiing.

Venezuela will also make an alpine skiing appearance: it is sending one competitor to Sochi this year. Violence in Venezuela is at appalling levels, with nearly 25,000 homicides in 2013 (although the government denies this figure). To put that in perspective, when Venezuela’s sole Olympian returns home, he is more than 150x more likely to be murdered than he would be in the United States (a nation with one of the highest homicide rates among developed countries).

Argentina is fast becoming an economic pariah as global investors brace for the worst. The country’s reserves of hard currencies fell 30% last year, and the currency has been in a tailspin of late. As the Argentine Peso has weakened, the government continues to tighten restrictions on transactions using foreign currency. Items purchased online from websites like Amazon need to be picked up at the local customs office, where waits often run 3 or 4 hours—and they are taxed 50%. Should an Argentine win a medal, good luck getting it past customs…

The locals

As I wrote in a recent piece for Time, the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating—with serious potential impact for Russia and the Winter Games. Part of the issue derives from Ukraine’s split personality between Europe and Russia. About one-sixth of citizens are ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their first language rather than Ukrainian. Another one-sixth are ethnic Russians who speak Russian. So how will Ukraine’s Olympic delegation proceed? Will there be any signs of support for the Ukrainian opposition? Will Russia try and muzzle them from interviews? It’s an important space to watch.

As Russia tries to pull Ukraine deeper into its orbit, there are other countries in its cross-hairs. Belarus and Kazakhstan are already members of the Russia-led Customs Union. If Putin could realize his dream of building out the Eurasian Union to include more of the former Soviet UnionArmenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be early candidates for this formalized security-economic integration framework—just imagine what it could do for Russia’s Olympic medal count.

The rising powers

The international sporting spotlight will soon shift to Brazil as it hosts the World Cup this summer (and the 2016 Olympics soon after). Brazil is sending 13 athletes to Sochi—that’s a record-high for the snowless country. Indeed, Brazil’s ambitions on the international stage are growing along with the prosperity of its populace: more than half of Brazil’s population is now middle class. But rising fortunes come with rising expectations, and as last year’s massive-scale protests showed, public frustration can quickly send people into the streets. The original spark? A 9-cent bus fare hike in Sao Paolo.

Recently, Turkey has been no stranger to protests either. But here the outlook is sufficiently bleak that any aspirations as a rising power will have to be put on hold. Turkey has to contend with Syria’s civil war just across the border, and heightened political uncertainty at home: Prime Minister Erdogan’s bellicose behavior toward any opposition isn’t doing the country any favors. He will be in attendance at Sochi. Turkish journalists may want to keep any dissenting views to themselves: in 2013, more imprisoned journalists were identified in Turkey than in any other country in the world

The key economies

The United States’ soft power (and star power) will be on full display in Sochi, with a huge roster of participating athletes and the quintessential American corporations sponsoring the Games. But one of the biggest political risks in the world today is driven by the United States’ international presence (or lack thereof). An increasingly risk-averse and poorly defined US role in the world has allies wondering whether Washington is disengaging abroad. Secretary of State John Kerry recently declared, “I can’t think of a single place in the world where we’re retreating, not one.” Perhaps he should have brainstormed with President Obama, who billed withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan as one of his principal foreign policy achievements in his State of the Union address last month.

In the Eurozone, three ‘core’ countries have cracked the top 10 in all-time gold medals: Germany (4th), Austria (5th), and Finland (9th). No periphery state has accomplished this feat. (Of course, their climates may be less accommodating, and Italy is knocking at the door at #11th…but it’s still one notch below East Germany, which ceased to be a country over 20 years ago). Unfortunately, when it comes to the health of their economies and employment rates, we see a similar imbalance. Germany’s 2013 current account surplus of $260 billion was the largest in the world, breaking its own record high. Meanwhile, periphery countries have struggled with painful austerity measures to try and strengthen their budgets and restore competitiveness. The result? Youth unemployment in Germany (8%) is a fraction of the levels seen in Italy (38%), Portugal (40%), Spain (55%) and Greece (58%). In a recent Pew poll, 75% of Germans had an optimistic economic outlook. Compare that with 1% in Greece.

While China recently surged past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, its Winter Olympic delegation doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Japan’s delegation is 113 strong—almost 60% of them women, which is uncharacteristic for a country ranked 105th out of 136 in a recent Global Gender Gap Report—whereas China has 65 athletes. On the global stage, China’s rise is alarming the neighbors. When you add in the historic bad blood between Beijing and Tokyo as well as recent escalations, the product is the world’s most dangerous bilateral geopolitical conflict. There has even been a Harry Potter component to the tensions, with each country accusing the other of being the region’s ‘Voldemort.’ Both countries’ leaders will be present in Sochi; suffice it to say they will avoid each other…even as they both meet with Putin.

The noticeably absent

While it may come as no surprise given its historical tensions with Russia, Georgia is not sending a delegation in protest (although they will have four athletes in attendance). But even as a no-show, Georgia can’t escape events in Sochi—after all, the Games are taking place on their front porch—and that’s not all they’re protesting. For the duration of the Olympics, Russia has extended its security perimeter into territory it contests with Georgia. In fact, Russia invaded its tiny neighbor over similar territorial disputes during the 2008 Olympics.

North Korea has failed to qualify for the Winter Games for the first time in 12 years. But surely Pyongyang will be represented in the Summer Olympics, given Dennis Rodman’s help with their basketball program…

India will not join the Parade of Nations because it has been suspended after it refused to prohibit corruption-tainted officials from running for elections. But the IOA (Independent Olympic Athletes) is filled with Indian athletes. Maybe it’s fitting that in a country of 1.2 billion people with 18 official languages and a messy democracy, the formal delegation fell through—but the athletes made it to Sochi nonetheless.
And last but not least, many Western world leaders are snubbing the games as well. It seems French President Francois Hollande has a more pressing affair to attend.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. For more on the geopolitics of the Olympics, follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer and @eurasiagroup where he will be live-tweeting the Opening Ceremonies.

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