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Selling the Tropical Winter Olympics to the Russians

Sochi’s Olympic Games are a showcase for the new post-Soviet Russia. The event was tailored to flaunt the resurrection of the former superpower after the collapse of the USSR and launch the clear message that the Kremlin will be a crucial geopolitical player in the 21st century.

February 21, 2014 - Giuseppe D'Amato - Articles and Commentary

20.02.2014 ruble2

Russia 2014 Olympic banknote 100 rubles Photo: Гознак (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

The Winter Olympics by the Black Sea have two additional features. The first one is personal and political at the same time; it is the culmination and the highest praise of Vladimir Putin’s power, which embodies the rebirth and the enrichment of the Slavic giant. The second is recreational. Sochi 2014 is an opportunity to finally host the Olympics, which has put Russia at the centre of the world of athletics for two weeks, and memory of the event will shine for decades. The average Russian is still bitter over the Western boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the consequent failure of that edition. During the Soviet era, the organisation of the Spartakiads had already demonstrated the attraction of Russia to the international competitions.  In this latter aspect there is nothing wrong with that.

However, the important thing is that victories in the stadiums do not serve as fuel for an umpteenth sinister wave of nationalism and xenophobia. The recent acts of violence are an alarming wake-up call. Some follies endanger the very foundations of coexistence between a hundred different Russian-speaking ethnic groups belonging to different religions.

Sochi 2014 is not the Olympics for the people as was, with all its weaknesses, Moscow 1980. The domestic and foreign tourists, in addition to the usual nosy journalists, appear to be intruders in a party of unsuspecting spectators of a program whose canvas has already been written. Simplified visas for the games were not issued and hotel facilities within the reach of average people’s financial possibilities are unavailable. In short, the number of admissions has been artificially limited because of the lack of beds, many fewer than planned in 2007.

The Black Sea Olympics are purely a media event; it is easy to control in order to avoid surprises. And it is easy “to exploit”; some mischievous colleagues could use that verb. For all the explained reasons above, dissent has been accepted neither in the state-owned press nor in internet. The official website of the organising committee has carried out a survey in which there were no possible answers criticizing the event. The result of the survey was that 107 per cent (sic!) of the respondents gave positive assessments of Sochi 2014.

The security measures are something that was previously observed only in Baghdad’s “Green Area” during the war in Iraq. There is nothing comparable in the equally problematic Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. It is really difficult to understand what all that has to do with a joyous sport event.

Certainly, it was unwise to organise the games a stone’s throw from the north Caucasus, but in July 2007, when Sochi was awarded the right to host the 2014 Olympics, Putin wanted to show that southern Russia was pacified. However, extremists’ threats last summer and the bombings in Volgograd last October and December have sparked great concern.

The choice of Sochi as the site for the Winter Olympics was heavily criticised by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in a report called “The Winter Olympic Games in the Subtropics” published last May. “You would waste a lot of time in finding a place on the map of the Russian Federation without snow. Putin has succeeded in doing so,” says the chief of the liberal opposition. No Russian federal mass media revived the story. Critics of the Olympics were isolated domestically, but became popular abroad. Sochi is indeed the warmest Winter Olympics, and is warmer than the Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Games. Trying to respond to Western concerns, the Russian portal Slon.ru wrote that Sochi was the only place in Russia, the biggest country in the world, where one can really hold the Winter Olympics.

The explanations, given by geologist Konstantin Ranks, are simple. First, even though Russia is largely a cold country, it is of little use for modern Olympic winter sports, including outdoor ones. According to international rules, competitions are cancelled when the temperature in the coldest part of the ski slopes reaches 20 degrees below zero Celsius. Russian towns which already have ski resorts are primarily located in various parts of Siberia, where temperatures are significantly below this threshold or remain at a critical mark.

Second, one needs mountains for Alpine sports, and these mountains must have certain elevation changes and steep slopes. In European Russia, there are no places with such suitable parameters, except the Caucasus in the south and Khibin in the north.

Third, the Winter Olympics require multiple stadiums that need electricity and roads. Resorts like Sochi can attract mass tourists also after the end of the games. In other places, these facilities would become dead sites.

Slon.ru notes that Poland and Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which are vying to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, face a similar problem of a lack of choice for venues. “Despite the virtuoso broadcasts and the blocking of negative information, despite frequent glimpses in the television of one person and other nonsense provincialism, we get objective information at least about athletic competitions,” Ayder Muzhdabayev, deputy editor-in-chief of Moskovskij Komsomolets, has written.

After the disastrous participation of their national team in Vancouver in 2010, the Russian organisers needed a sport symbol for their games by the Black sea. Their choice fell on figure skater Evgeni Plushenko.

Unfortunately, due to an old injury, the two-time Olympic champion refused to take part in the men’s singles tournament in Sochi. Some days before this event, he even asked for a replacement in the competition for teams, but his request was not taken into consideration by the Russian Federation of figure skating association.

The controversy over Plushenko has become fierce, and the entire nation has focused on it. The Russian champion explained that his country had the right to put only one skater in the Olympics as his colleagues, who participated in last year’s world championships, winning 15th and 17th place. Evgeni was forced to be in Sochi because he had a better chance of winning a medal. His physical condition was unimportant.

“You know, I tried. When we came to the team competition, everyone understood that we could win the silver or bronze medal. We won the gold. Then, I was asked by the Federation whether I wanted to continue to perform. I replied that I didn’t feel well,” said the Russian skater in an interview to CNN published in the daily newspaper Sport Express.

Later, Plushenko contradicted himself, stating that the decision to participate in the singles he took on his own and the Federation did not pressure him. “I gave the interview to CNN in English. I do not speak it fluently and my answers could be misinterpreted,” he explained. “Soon, patriotic songs with tears of love and sympathy to his undefeated Motherland will begin,” Ayder Muzhdabayev commented ironically.

The cost of the Olympic Games in Sochi has already been astronomical, around 51 billion US dollars. In practice, more or less 10 per cent of the foreign exchange reserves (the third-largest in the world) of Russia are four times greater than planned in 2007, nine times greater than in Vancouver 2010 and 16 greater compared to Turin 2006. But this is not all. According to a government source cited by the Bloomberg News Agency, $7 billion more will be necessary to maintain the infrastructure and the Olympic venues in the near future.

The Russian mass media censored itself and did not deal with the subject at all. Only RBK Daily published an article about what foreign journalists write about Sochi and has reprinted quotes from main world’s newspapers. They included: “This is a big event, the largest construction project in the history of the post-Soviet Russia, and it is also a microcosm of Russian corruption” or “Excessive costs may even become a source of pride. In the end, even the Egyptian pyramids contractors certainly inflated bills.”

The Russians must be proud of their Olympic Games. That is the obvious order given by the federally-controlled media. Vesti 24, the Kremlin’s news channel, started counting the medals not on the base of their importance (as usual: gold, silver and bronze for the general standing by countries), but on their number. Thus for days, Russia was first or second in relation to the number of gained medals in all shown reports.

Unfortunately, the victory most desired by Putin vanished. The national hockey team was eliminated in the quarter-finals and could not play the final on the last Games’ day. That would have been the icing on the cake before the Russians will be given the bill for the Olympic party.

Giuseppe D’Amato is an Italian journalist and historian based in Moscow who specialises in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. 

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