Orcas at the Winter Olympics: A combo that’s hard to watch

A killer whale breaches in Puget Sound.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

For the Winter Olympics, Russian hosts are planning a grand display of two recently captured killer whales. And we’re supposed to say what, exactly? It’s all in the name of international sports and so we won’t make a fuss? Let’s all support the Games?

I’m less and less sure.

First it was Russia criminalizing pro-gay “propaganda,” which includes any public display of support for gay rights. Then, over the weekend, in attempting to reassure gay athletes and visitors that they should feel perfectly at ease about coming to Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin equated homosexuality with pedophilia, according to the Associated Press.

Now come reports that Russia plans to put on display two killer whales, captured from the wild along with five others. Because, you know, the link between elite sports and magnificent wild animals who were free to roam the hundreds of miles they naturally cover in the open seas, now trapped in inadequate tanks for people to gawk at, is so entirely obvious.


The proper, measured response is supposed to be that the great cause of international sportsmanship is worth all this and that boycotting the Games — as we did to the Soviet Union in 1980, as they did to us in 1984 — hurts athletes and doesn’t change shameful national policies. The memory of the great Jesse Owens is generally trotted out around now, along with the saga of how his participation in the 1936 Berlin Games showed the Nazis and the world that people of African descent were the equal of all. But that didn’t keep millions of people from being murdered by the Nazi regime.

I’m not saying that the United States should boycott the Sochi Games; the country and its Olympic committee must tread carefully on the politics of the Games.

This does, however, raise the continuing question of whether this multibillion-dollar extravaganza is worth repeating every four years. And it certainly doesn’t mean I have to play along with this idealized notion that the creation of elite athletes through extraordinary expense and training is somehow more important than other things I hold dear, such as equal treatment of people regardless of sexual orientation — and an end to trapping magnificent marine mammals that are ill-suited to captivity as an entertainment for humans.

Interesting that on Monday, my colleague Paul Whitefield similarly has grown disgusted enough with entirely different Olympic controversies to lose his sense of enthusiasm for the Games.

The glorious figure skaters will spin and leap without me. They’re free to make the decision about whether and where they want to do that. The killer whales trained to do similar tricks in marine parks aren’t.


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