SBD/February 7, 2014/Olympics

Putin's Pinnacle: Russia President Stakes Legacy On Sochi Games, But Will It Pay Off?

Putin's policies have come under increased scrutiny in the lead-up to the Sochi Games
A lot will be at stake for Russia President Vladimir Putin during the Sochi Games, as he hopes hosting "such a large-scale event gives the world 'a better feel of today's Russia,'" according to a front-page piece by Kelly Whiteside of USA TODAY. Putin since deciding to bid on these Games has been "heavily involved, from lobbying the International Olympic Committee to bring the Games to Russia to inspecting construction sites, testing the facilities and meeting with athletes arriving this week" (USA TODAY, 2/7). In N.Y., Steven Lee Myers writes for Putin and his allies, the Games have "become a self-evident triumph of Russia’s will." The "avalanche of criticism that has already fallen, from minor complaints about ill-prepared hotels and stray dogs to grave concerns about the costs, security and human rights, is being brushed away like snowflakes from a winter coat." Russia Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said, "Its realization is already a huge win for our country." Myers writes the Games are a "crowning moment for Mr. Putin, a chance to demonstrate anew his mastery of the global levers of power." However, hosting the Olympics "seems to have lost some of the luster officials expected for Russia’s prestige at home and abroad, much to the frustration of Mr. Putin’s supporters." The Games have "refocused international attention on the hard-line policies Mr. Putin’s government has pursued since he returned to the presidency" in '12. Meanwhile, Russia Olympic Committee President Alexander Zhukov said of the perceived politicization of the Olympics, "The Games are supposed to be outside of politics. Those who try to pin some political tails on them are just being undignified" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/7).

HOPING FOR REBIRTH ON WORLD STAGE: The New Yorker Editor David Remnick said Putin with the Games wants to "reassert Russia on the world stage, and the Olympics is the greatest pop culture stage that there is." Remnick: "If it goes well, if there's no terrorism, no violence and things work, for him it's a great success by his domestic terms. ... He has no interest in LGBT issues or human rights, all the things that are being discussed, and he doesn't care that you care that much. So what you may think is a downside is not of great concern to him unless there's an incident of some kind." Russian TV host Vladimir Posner said, "He cares much more about how people in this country feel about the Olympics and how they go than how people outside this country feel about them. So if there is nothing bad like a terrorist attack, if these are successful games, the people in Russia are going to be very happy with that, the majority." Posner added there likely will be "zero" effect on the athletes and visitors in terms of Russia's anti-gay laws. Posner: "I don't see anything happening. In fact, the powers that be are going to be super careful to see that nothing happens to any gay athlete or guest during the Olympics" ("XXII Winter Olympics," NBC, 2/6). 

SOCHI'S TENUOUS LEGACY: In London, Roland Oliphant writes if Friday's Opening Ceremony and the subsequent events go smoothly, Putin "will be able to count these Games a success, not just personally but for his vision of Russia." He "will have been heartened by Thursday's scenes of genuine jubilation as ministers and Olympic officials carried the torch through a cheering crowd on Sochi’s seafront, on the final leg of its journey" (London TELEGRAPH, 2/7). In S.F., Mark Nuckols writes, "From the Kremlin's perspective, the XXII Winter Olympics are already an immense success" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 2/7). Also in S.F., Ann Killion asks when the Games are over, will we "remember some glorious athletic feat," or will we remember "something darker?" The world "will watch Russia for the next two weeks, waiting and witnessing Putin's legacy" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 2/7). In Philadelphia, Marcus Hayes: "Barring disaster, what will be remembered is what happens, not the environment in which it occurred" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 2/7). SI.com's Michael Farber: "The bar has been set so low that Sochi -- and by extension, Putin -- can hardly fail." The country "will be judged on its ability to deliver a telegenic and safe Olympics, not a memorable one" (SI.com, 2/6).

EDITORIAL BOARDS OPINE
: A N.Y. POST editorial states, "We ... wish the Russian people a successful Olympics." The paper's editorial board members are "not among those hoping for disaster as a way of embarrassing" Putin, as the "innocent athletes who have come from all over the world do not deserve this." But if "many people are hoping for such a disaster, it is because Putin has brought this on himself" (N.Y. POST, 2/7). A WASHINGTON POST editorial states, "Sochi will provide, at best, another example of how awarding the Games to autocratic governments like that of Mr. Putin only reinforces their worst practices while undermining what should be the Olympics’ commitment to human freedom and tolerance" (WASHINGTON POST, 2/7). A N.Y. TIMES editorial states, "The Olympics cannot but put a spotlight on the host country, and despite all efforts to create a more pleasant image of his state, Mr. Putin is facing a growing protest" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/7). Meanwhile, a LONDON TIMES editorial states the Sochi Games "pose three challenges" to IOC President Thomas Bach, and so far, he "has shown scant interest in tackling them." Bach "vowed to control the spending of Olympic bids," but at Sochi, he "will be confronted with a project that has cost" about $51B, as much as all previous Winter Olympic games combined. Regarding corruption, the Olympic movement "must put that in order," and it "has to ensure that all winning bids comply with the Olympic Charter." Athletes "wishing to speak out for Principle Six," which is the Olympic Charter's anti-discrimination clause, during the Games "should be allowed to do so." Olympic organizers also "have to work out whether sites of future games should be placed, like Sochi, in a conflict zone" (LONDON TIMES, 2/7).

PRESSURE ON TEAM RUSSIA: In Milwaukee, Gary D'Amato writes Russian citizens are “pinning especially high hopes on their athletes" during the Sochi Games. The Russian team was "once a force to be reckoned with and the pride of the nation,” but the contingent at Vancouver was a "national embarrassment.” The country four years ago brought home “just three gold medals and a string of doping busts” (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, 2/7). Posner noted there is "a lot" of pressure on Russian athletes to perform well, "especially in hockey." Posner: "For the Russians, if the hockey team wins, it doesn't matter what happens with everything else. If it loses, it doesn't matter what happens with everything else. Hockey is it" ("XXII Winter Olympics," NBC, 2/6).
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