Criticism of the Sochi Winter Olympics: Myths and Reality

The western mainstream media have raised a public opinion war against Russia, against Putin especially, which is not in line with the Olympic spirit. The Sochi Games are indeed a historical opportunity for Russia to reshape its image as a great power and a significant global player, to boost its national spirit and to develop the local economy.

The XXII Olympic Winter Games, which are held in the Black Sea coast of the famous resort of Sochi, have attracted wide international attention even before the official opening ceremony. As with the 2008 Beijing Olympics in China, what should be a discussion of sports, within the context of a major sporting event, is now facing an environment of international public opinion that has already deviated from this theme. Public opinion, led by western countries, is now turning towards criticism of Russia under the Putin administration. The western mainstream media have raised a public opinion war against Russia, against Putin especially, which is not in line with the Olympic spirit.

Thus, some myths emerge. But are things really as simple as they seem?

First: President Vladimir Putin has staked his personal political prestige on staging a successful Olympics.

Indeed, Putin was deeply involved in the work of the Sochi Winter Olympics: during the Olympic bid, speaking English, he made a solemn commitment to guarantee a successful Olympics to the IOC; during the construction of a stadium, he came to inspect it several times; before the official opening, he made use of the new infrastructure once. However, we cannot forget one key point, which is that major international events like the Winter Olympics have always been national projects, not the personal needs of specific political leaders. Whether Putin achieves success or not will depend on the overall performance of his entire presidential term, rather than the Olympic Winter Games on its own.

Moreover, the successful bid to the competitions themselves so far speaks of the successful organization of the Games, albeit the most expensive ones. It has already created an image of Sochi as a world-class tourist destination. At least fans of skiing and other winter sports now have another option. It is a success for Russia to take a major international sports event as a means of public diplomacy. When the FIFA World Cup and other world class events subsequently take place in the near future, there will be more and more people discovering the real Russia, not a strange one that lives in their imagination.

Second: The fact that leaders of developed western countries did not attend the opening ceremony is an echo of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, is a boycott of Putin’s administration.

Whether Olympic Games are successful or not depends on a number of indicators. There is no tradition of counting the leaders attending the opening ceremony as a core parameter. Besides, the international environment Russia faced in 1980 and in 2014 is clearly different. Not a single western leader would “boycott” the Sochi Winter Olympics to express their dissatisfaction over Russia's domestic and foreign policy, although this dissatisfaction always exists. Their decision was “not present”, and this is different from a boycott. Their absences will not alter the domestic development agenda in Russia. Putin will be running the country according to his own ideas, and this will not be swayed by western countries. As a significant player in world affairs, whether it is the situation in Syria or Ukraine, or other hot issues, Russia’s value to the peace, stability and development in the globe and in the region lies precisely in its independent stance.

Third: With its high costs the Sochi Olympics is a “bad example” for future candidate cities.

The Olympic Winter Games were criticized most because of the disproportion embodied in its ultra-high spending and ultra-luxury. The core of this argument is to deny and break down the legitimacy of the Putin administration, and to dwarf and belittle the international image of Russia. In a horizontal comparison, whether the Summer Olympics or the Winter Olympics, all host countries have the problem of spending money over budget, which the Athens Olympics, the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics all prove. There was one in which the host country even spent ten times over budget. Furthermore, as Russia’s goal in Sochi is to develop the place as a regional economic driving force, most of the financial input is focused on long-term investment goals.

Fourth: The rate of return of this Winter Olympics is disturbing.

Sochi is located in the Caucasus region, the most unstable area of Russia. Taking the advantage of the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, and making Sochi a world-class tourist site and a new growth pole in the Caucasus has become a very important strategic objective in Putin’s administration. Of the funds for this most expensive Winter Olympics, which amount to 51 billion dollars, 44 billion dollars was used in the field of transportation and other related infrastructure construction. Obviously, the expectation for the development of the local economy extends far beyond the construction of the Olympic stadium.

Now, it appears that the “Sochi effect” is taking shape. According to an analysis of the High School of Economics, in the case of overall economic stagnation in Russia, the southern Russian economy is showing excellent growth indicators, which is mainly driven by the Sochi Olympics.

Of course after the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, the short-term effects of the huge amount of investment in the process of organizing the Olympics will dissipate, and the growth momentum of the local economy will inevitably be restrained. The question is that whether Russia is capable of attracting tourists both from inside and outside the country through building the confidence for investment as a corollary of the Winter Olympics. And in this way the “Sochi effect” will last longer. This is a test of the wisdom of Putin’s administration. But to be objective, in view that the Olympic effect can be seen only after ten years, as international practice shows, it is too early to assess the rate of return of the Sochi Olympics.

To my knowledge, the Sochi Olympic Winter Games are indeed a historical opportunity for Russia to reshape its image as a great power and a significant global player, to boost its national spirit and to develop the local economy.

However, sports is sports, we should let it get back to be what it is. Any other meaning beyond sports, any shadows of “politicization” factors will carry the Games far away from their essential function as a sports competition. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.