From the epic sweep of a torch run that spanned the full breadth and depth of Russia’s nine time zones and even visited the International Space Station, to the splendor of its gleaming venues, the Sochi Olympics sought to proclaim Russia’s re-emergence as a world power and its president, Vladimir Putin, as the dynamic leader behind the renaissance. ¶ As such, Sochi 2014 has played to two audiences — domestic and global — with differing results. ¶ Despite the collapse of Russia’s hockey team and continued protests by the opposition, the Olympics appear to have produced a victory at home. With one day remaining, Russian athletes have won 29 medals, including 11 gold; Sochi’s transportation system has been efficient; the venues look beautiful on television; and Putin’s highly touted Ring of Steel security perimeter has done its job. ¶ It is far less clear whether the Sochi Games have altered perceptions of Russia abroad, especially as they have played out amid political turmoil in Ukraine. For every success, there has been a negative: balmy temperatures that made the choice of Russia’s subtropical Black Sea resort look foolish; shabby construction at half-built hotels; wild overspending that can only be attributed to graft and corruption; and the suppression and arrest of environmental activists and dissenters.
More so than any previous Olympics, the Sochi Games have been linked with the host nation’s head of state, commonly referred to as “Putin’s Games,” in tones both laudatory and derisive. The 61-year-old former KGB officer was photographed playing hockey on the Olympic ice and skiing at the Alpine venue of Krasnaya Polyana on the eve of the Games. And when Russia won its first gold medal Feb. 9, in team figure skating, Putin was rinkside at the Iceberg Skating Palace, sporting a red track suit and surrounded by security, to be the first to congratulate the victors.
The medal haul has been just the ticket to help Russians forget the Vancouver Games, deemed a national humiliation, where Team Russia won just 15 medals, three of them gold.
Of the two audiences, Putin put greater stock in the domestic, using the Games to rally Russia’s heartland and solidify his political base, in the view of Mark Kramer, program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
According to Kramer, Putin’s popularity has remained at around 65 percent over the past year, and early indications are that the Olympics will boost it closer to 70 percent, in the short term.
“For the Kremlin, that is a resounding success,” Kramer said in an e-mail exchange.
It is an equal success for the Russian people just 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the psychic and economic upheaval that followed, in the eyes of Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner, 79, who has provided analysis and historical context throughout the Games for NBC.
Pozner described the waning days of the Soviet Union as “a society held together by a kind of epoxy glue.” And when it collapsed, and faith in the Soviet system that had demanded the sacrifice of generations of Russians dissolved, Russia was left a nation of people with no ideals.
“Putin very quickly began to bring the country back together and make it clear to the rest of the world that Russia can’t be ignored,” Pozner said.
To that end, Putin traveled to Guatemala in 2007 to personally assure the International Olympic Committee that Russia would stage a Winter Games of unparalleled splendor, vowing to spend twice as much as any nation to that point.
“If there were a presidential election tomorrow — really democratic, open and free — he’d win overwhelmingly,” Pozner said in a lengthy interview. “He has helped restore pride.”
That was evident in the eyes of Vyacheslav Malakhov, 67, who shuffled slowly through Olympic Park last week with his wife and a longtime friend, with a Russian flag in hand. Residents of Sochi, they didn’t have tickets for any of the events but had each gotten an official Spectator Pass, displaying their name and photograph, that’s required to enter the secured Olympic perimeter.
“We didn’t want the Olympics to happen,” Malakhov said through an interpreter, recounting the years of construction and skepticism that the disruption would be worth it to residents of the Krasnodar region. “Now we all love it. It’s so wonderful. Just perfect. I am very proud to be Russian.”
Nearby, Natalia Tyakisheva, 40, sat with her 64-year-old mother, 10-year-old daughter and a family friend. They, too, didn’t have tickets, which cost roughly $80 at a minimum in a country where the average worker’s monthly salary is $900. But they watched the Opening Ceremonies on TV and were thrilled when the cauldron was lit. It only made sense to take the children to see the flame up close, as well as the futuristic 40,000-seat Fisht Stadium, whose translucent, slopestyle roof was designed to evoke the snowy peaks of the mountains beyond.
“Now we have something that will be left for the children,” Tyakisheva said. “We think that Putin did a good job because he took this region and transformed it. The structures are so beautiful.”
World of extremes
on gay rights
Beyond Russia’s borders, the lasting images are not as universally positive.
“At a normal Olympics, the ‘sweeps’ we would be talking about are medal sweeps,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch. “Sadly, the Sochi Games have been defined by sweeps: arrests of peaceful critics that are wholly inconsistent with Olympic ideals of human dignity.”
Kramer cites the Ukraine unrest as another factor that has undercut the Sochi messaging, at least internationally.
“There’s no doubt that the crisis in Ukraine tarnished even further Putin’s image in the West, offsetting anything he might have gained from the Olympics,” Kramer said via e-mail. “The follies and corruption and crackdowns on environmentalists and other activists that were extensively discussed in the Western press and on Western TV coverage will not be easily forgotten. Hence, the Olympics in the wider world tended to reinforce the image that Russia, despite its immense energy resources, in other respects is still a backward country.”
As for the widely publicized images of brown water belching from hotel faucets and rubble-strewn construction sites, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky says that’s “run of the mill” prior to every Olympics Games.
Pozner takes particular issue with Western media for setting the stage for Sochi’s Games with such easily captured, provocative images rather than probing more deeply into what the 2014 Olympics represent in the context of Russian history. He also believes the security worries were overstated in the Western media, even as he acknowledges legitimate concerns, given the volatility of the North Caucasus, just 400 miles to the northeast.
“The picture that was created was very negative in the Western media,” said Pozner, who spent his formative years in New York, Paris and Moscow, son of a Russian father and French mother. “I don’t think that media in general has been objective or even tried to be objective. The Cold War mentality is still very much alive. Russia is seen in the West as basically negative.”
Olympics graphics roundup
Seven months before the Olympic press corps arrived with their cellphone cameras and Twitter feeds, however, a Chechen militant urged Islamic terrorists to target the Sochi Games. And in December, two terrorist bombs exploded in the city of Volgograd, 400 miles away, killing more than 30 at a bus and train station.
Russian officials countered by clamping down a 60-mile security zone around the Games, which Putin touted as a “Ring of Steel” that was enforced by 40,000 police and military officers.
While metal detectors, armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs are standard at Olympic Games, the degree of visible security at Sochi was unprecedented. Snipers patrolled the rail line connecting the Olympic Village to the city of Sochi,. For the first time at an Olympic Games, all fans were required to obtain a Spectator Pass, which meant undergoing a background check administered by the Russian Federal Security Service, supplying photographs and personal details.
At the Olympic Fan Zone near Sochi’s seaport, two large signs listed the 30 items not permitted inside, in Russian and English. It included laser pointers, alcoholic beverages, thermoses and flasks, sports equipment, animals and “any object whose appearance resembles a forbidden object.” Armed security guards stood at the entrance.
However, the success of Putin’s Ring of Steel was not without a price. Many stayed away from the Sochi Games, worried about the threats. On two of the busiest afternoons of the Games, only a few dozen fans were inside the Olympic Fan Zone.
“We were warned about this,” Norway’s Gerhard Heiberg, an IOC member and head of its marketing commission, said during the first week of the Games. “The TV pictures are wonderful, the competitions are wonderful, the venues are great. But I feel a bit the lack of enthusiasm and the joy of sports.”
But as the Games unfolded, pockets of joy erupted.
Clanging cowbells bridged cultural divides at the mountain venues, where the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events tuned into a party. Though Dutch speedskating fans turned out in modest numbers, they brought their wildly popular band with them, which sparked life into Adler Arena.
At the Iceberg Skating Palace, Ruslan Mazitov, 26, an irrepressibly enthusiastic emcee, urged the predominantly Russian audience to clap their hands, stomp their feet and cheer for all athletes, alternating between Russian and English without missing a beat.
“Applause! Applause yourselves!” Mazitov said with a huge smile, clapping along over the video board. “And now, we dance together! Let’s be a little bit crazy and active spectators!”
And in the Olympic Park by the flame, an Anaheim Ducks jersey and an American flag sparked a conversation and a fast friendship.
Mike Olsen, 34, of Chicago had traveled to Sochi with friends for an Olympic-themed vacation. They started in Moscow, visited St. Petersburg and by Day 6 of the Games had seen the Opening Ceremonies, luge, ski jumping, curling and speedskating. And as they waited for the night’s U.S.-Slovakia hockey match, they ran across a Russian fan wearing a Ducks jersey.
So they took a group photo, holding up both their countries’ flags.
The Russian fan wanted to know what most Americans thought of Russians.
They’re scared, Olsen replied.
“Well, maybe,” the Russian said, “you can go back and tell them not to be scared.”
Natasha Abbakumova in Sochi contributed to this report.