So the Sochi Winter Olympics has drawn to a close and across the country Russian officials must be breathing a sigh of relief. For other than a malfunctioning snowflake during the opening ceremony, everything seems to have gone off without a hitch (although that snowflake got more than its fair share of publicity). And as Britain celebrates its medal haul and curling suddenly becomes our national sport, it seems a good time to reflect upon the Sochi games. Has it proved the success that Russia hoped it would? How exactly should that success be measured? What, in fact, did Russia hope to achieve by hosting the most expensive Olympics in history? Because despite what most of the athletes may have wished, the Sochi Winter Olympics was always going to be about more than just sport. It was the same for China in 2008 and for Britain in 2012. Large sporting events always invite intense international scrutiny, and not just for the sporting achievements. It is a chance to put a particular country/ruler/regime under the spotlight of international opinion. Political leaders are well aware of this. It is why so much time, money and effort is spent on an event which is over in a few weeks. It is why the famous and talented are wheeled out for the opening and closing ceremonies, and why thousands of pounds/renminbi/rubles literally go up in pyrotechnic smoke. It is why Mayors of important cities risk major organ damage doing zip-wire stunts. They know that more is at stake than the country’s sporting reputation.
So what was at stake for Russia? Well, given the bad press that it has been getting recently, the Olympics could be said to have been an ideal time to rehabilitate the country’s image. The amnesty law introduced in December 2013, which saw the release of the ‘Arctic 30’ and members of Pussy Riot, appeared to be one step in this direction. However, if this had been the plan, it backfired terribly. For rather than helping to forget Russia’s questionably human rights, the Sochi Olympics put them front and centre. In fact, in the run up to the games you could have been forgiven for forgetting that the event was supposed to be about sporting achievement. The media exploded with story after story criticising Putin and the Russian authorities. The rights of homosexual people in Russia dominated the headlines in the days before the games – tv programmes documented homophobic hate crimes, newspapers reported the arrests of those protesting the anti-gay propaganda law passed in June 2013, and this video went viral on social media. Discussion of the cost of the Olympics was accompanied by accusations of waste and corruption. Environmentalists protested the damage done to the Sochi region, while an attack on Volgograd train station in December 2013 increased fears of terrorist activity during the Olympics, and brought further attention to Russia’s difficult relationship with the Muslim world. And animal lovers everywhere reacted in horror to news that stray dogs in Sochi were being slaughtered prior to the games.
Which begs the question, did the Russian authorities not see this coming? Did they not predict that some of their actions in 2013 might come back to haunt them in 2014? Of course activists are going to take the opportunity of any large international event to try to monopolise media coverage. It was inevitable that protesters would use Sochi to highlight issues of freedom of speech in Russia. When Pussy Riot (including recently released members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina) tried to perform a protest song at the Olympics, was anybody surprised? This is what activists do. And when the Russian authorities were stupid enough to arrest and to attack the women, they were handing a PR victory to all those fighting for freedom of speech in Russia. During Soviet times, acts of state violence and repression may have been able to go on unseen, but in 2014 social media ensures the world knows.
However, does Putin actually care what the world thinks? In the past, the President has in fact gained favour with many Russians by his dismissal of foreign opinion. The answer lies in what type of image he is looking to portray of himself and Russia. On the morning of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, UK news reporters claimed that the event was designed to showcase Russia as a nation worthy of taking a seat among the the western powers – a typical western-centric way of looking at things. For, while Putin and Russia were wanting to show off to the world, it was not in the way the British reporters believed. Russia wasn’t concerned with western approval – it wanted universal awe. The 2012 London Olympics had been an exercise in soft power. Legacy and sustainability had been the watch-words, and the whole affair had been carefully choreographed to showcase the talent and the dynamism of the UK. It was all about Cool Britannia. Sochi, in contrast, has been about traditional hard power. In that typical Russian way of doing everything on tremendous scale, the games have been designed to remind the world that when it wants to, Russia can still put on a show. Money, the environment, protesters, terrorist threat and stray dogs were not going to be allowed to get in the way.
So did it work? Well in many ways the games appear to have been a great success. The overwhelming military presence in the region kept everyone safe and sound as they watched some fantastic sporting achievements; Russian pride was boosted by its dominance of the medal table; and despite all the media furor building up to the games, the majority of the athletes appeared more interested in their sport than joining in with political statements. As for Sochi, having had £30bn spent on building roads, hotels, railways and sporting facilities, there is a hope that it will now become a destination resort – presumably particularly for those who enjoy skiing in a t-shirt in February. And Putin himself? Well, he may not have seen his nation win gold in ice hockey, but the President is probably still quite satisfied. What the long term legacy of the Olympics will be for his own personal rule is difficult to predict. Only time can tell what impact, if any, Sochi 2014 makes on Russia’s wider political scene and whether the pride many Russians will feel with the success of the Olympics will translate into greater support for Putin. Or will the image of young women being whipped by Cossacks leave an indelible image on the conscience of the nation? Already media attention has moved on to the terrible events in Ukraine. Questions about Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws have now become questions on how that country is going to react to affairs in its neighbouring state. International scrutiny of Russia continues.