Putin’s Olympic Success Ends in a Shootout

Scoring Putin’s performance in Sochi, the Russian president’s achievements are overshadowed by Ukrainian violence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Closing Ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Feb. 25, 2014, midnight

The Olympics is not just a com­pet­i­tion for thou­sands of ath­letes. It’s also about how well the host coun­try’s lead­ers per­form. This is es­pe­cially true for Vladi­mir Putin.

So­chi was Putin’s Olympics. There’s no way around that. It was his per­son­al, Eng­lish-lan­guage pitch to the In­ter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee that got Rus­sia the Games. He over­saw the $51 bil­lion op­er­a­tion, pour­ing more money in­to these Olympics than all oth­er Winter Games com­bined.

So, let’s judge his per­form­ance. Since the fig­ure skat­ing scor­ing sys­tem is way too com­plic­ated to un­der­stand for the lay­man, Putin will be judged on a 10-point scale in four dif­fer­ent cat­egor­ies: geo­pol­it­ics, ath­letes, pa­geantry, and se­cur­ity.

Geo­pol­it­ics: 1

After a day of watch­ing his coun­try­men and wo­men com­pete in an ar­ray of sports, Putin got on the phone last Tues­day night with Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych. The now-ous­ted Ukrain­i­an lead­er had been deal­ing with rowdy pro­test­ers for sev­er­al months who were call­ing for closer ties to the European Uni­on and a sep­ar­a­tion from Rus­si­an in­flu­ence. The day after the call with Putin, Ukrain­i­an po­lice forces vi­ol­ently cracked down on the protests, res­ult­ing in dozens of deaths. Kiev went up in flames. And who’s to blame? Ac­cord­ing to many ana­lysts, it’s Putin.

The tu­mult in Ukraine wasn’t totally ab­sent from So­chi. A Ukrain­i­an alpine ski­er and her coach dropped out of the Olympics in protest after the IOC would not al­low ath­letes from that coun­try wear black arm­bands to mourn the deaths back home.

Bey­ond Ukraine, Rus­sia’s hu­man rights stances were heav­ily cri­ti­cized by U.S. and European of­fi­cials, lam­bast­ing the dra­coni­an anti-gay laws in the coun­try. And while Putin re­leased Pussy Ri­ot mem­bers from jail in Decem­ber as a ges­ture of pro­gress, po­lice bru­tally at­tacked sev­er­al mem­bers of the group who were protest­ing in So­chi.

Ath­letes: 9

Rus­sia came away from the Games with the most total medals (33) and most gold medals (13) of any coun­try. That’s bet­ter than the three gold medals the coun­try picked up in Van­couver in 2010.

But there were still the dev­ast­at­ing men’s hockey losses to Fin­land and the United States, fail­ing to medal in the event that the lead­er dubbed the most im­port­ant for Rus­sia. Ad­di­tion­ally, ac­cus­a­tions of cor­rup­tion in scor­ing clouded the gold-medal win for Rus­si­an ice-skater Ad­elina Sot­nikova.

Pa­geantry: 6

The best ath­letes on Earth com­peted 18 days for their home coun­tries, filled with emo­tion­al wins and dev­ast­at­ing heart­break. The open­ing and clos­ing ce­re­mon­ies were beau­ti­ful and po­et­ic spec­tacles that showed a Rus­sia bey­ond its Iron Cur­tain past.

But set­backs went bey­ond the nor­mal hic­cups of pre­vi­ous Games. Be­fore an Olympic ring failed to open dur­ing the Open­ing Ce­re­mon­ies, stor­ies of mal­func­tion­ing doors, dirty wa­ter, killing of stray dogs, and un­fin­ished ho­tels plagued So­chi cov­er­age. So-called #So­chiProb­lems be­came so per­sist­ent that im­ages of a U.S. ath­lete break­ing through his hotel bath­room door went vir­al.

Se­cur­ity: 8

There was no ter­ror­ist at­tack, even after months of warn­ings over the threats that re­gion of Rus­sia poses. Out­go­ing U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia Mi­chael Mc­Faul called Rus­sia’s hand­ling of se­cur­ity at the Games “an achieve­ment” in an in­ter­view with CNN on Monday.

But se­cur­ity threats of bombs in tooth­paste to shoe bombs to an at­temp­ted hi­jack­ing of a Turk­ish air­plane to So­chi still earned head­lines that left of­fi­cials con­cerned.

The Res­ults: 6

In the last three areas, the pos­it­ives clearly out­weigh the neg­at­ives. If Olympics were judged solely on the pomp and cir­cum­stance, Putin could walk away feel­ing good. For him, the Games were de­signed to be a dis­trac­tion from the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems that the West has with Rus­sia. It was the be­gin­ning of the Rus­si­an comeback on the world stage.

But those is­sues might have proved to be too big to hide. Putin’s com­plete Olympic win per­ished along with the dozens of pro­test­ers in neigh­bor­ing Ukraine.

However, that’s not stop­ping Putin from tak­ing a vic­tory lap.

“We have a great ex­pres­sion, ‘If you don’t take a risk then you don’t drink the cham­pagne,’” Putin said Monday. “So today we can raise a glass to our joint res­ult.”

Putin may put on a strong pub­lic face. But it was his own de­sire to hold on to Rus­sia’s po­s­i­tion in the re­gion and his strangle­hold on his coun­try that hurt his scores in the end.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4756) }}

Geopolitics: 1

After a day of watch­ing his coun­try­men and wo­men com­pete in an ar­ray of sports, Putin got on the phone last Tues­day night with Ukrain­i­an Pres­id­ent Vikt­or Ya­nukovych. The now-ous­ted Ukrain­i­an lead­er had been deal­ing with rowdy pro­test­ers for sev­er­al months who were call­ing for closer ties to the European Uni­on and a sep­ar­a­tion from Rus­si­an in­flu­ence. The day after the call with Putin, Ukrain­i­an po­lice forces vi­ol­ently cracked down on the protests, res­ult­ing in dozens of deaths. Kiev went up in flames. And who’s to blame? Ac­cord­ing to many ana­lysts, it’s Putin.

The tu­mult in Ukraine wasn’t totally ab­sent from So­chi. A Ukrain­i­an alpine ski­er and her coach dropped out of the Olympics in protest after the IOC would not al­low ath­letes from that coun­try wear black arm­bands to mourn the deaths back home.

Bey­ond Ukraine, Rus­sia’s hu­man rights stances were heav­ily cri­ti­cized by U.S. and European of­fi­cials, lam­bast­ing the dra­coni­an anti-gay laws in the coun­try. And while Putin re­leased Pussy Ri­ot mem­bers from jail in Decem­ber as a ges­ture of pro­gress, po­lice bru­tally at­tacked sev­er­al mem­bers of the group who were protest­ing in So­chi.

Athletes: 9

Rus­sia came away from the Games with the most total medals (33) and most gold medals (13) of any coun­try. That’s bet­ter than the three gold medals the coun­try picked up in Van­couver in 2010.

But there were still the dev­ast­at­ing men’s hockey losses to Fin­land and the United States, fail­ing to medal in the event that the lead­er dubbed the most im­port­ant for Rus­sia. Ad­di­tion­ally, ac­cus­a­tions of cor­rup­tion in scor­ing clouded the gold-medal win for Rus­si­an ice-skater Ad­elina Sot­nikova.

Pageantry: 6

The best ath­letes on Earth com­peted 18 days for their home coun­tries, filled with emo­tion­al wins and dev­ast­at­ing heart­break. The open­ing and clos­ing ce­re­mon­ies were beau­ti­ful and po­et­ic spec­tacles that showed a Rus­sia bey­ond its Iron Cur­tain past.

But set­backs went bey­ond the nor­mal hic­cups of pre­vi­ous Games. Be­fore an Olympic ring failed to open dur­ing the Open­ing Ce­re­mon­ies, stor­ies of mal­func­tion­ing doors, dirty wa­ter, killing of stray dogs, and un­fin­ished ho­tels plagued So­chi cov­er­age. So-called #So­chiProb­lems be­came so per­sist­ent that im­ages of a U.S. ath­lete break­ing through his hotel bath­room door went vir­al.

Security: 8

There was no ter­ror­ist at­tack, even after months of warn­ings over the threats that re­gion of Rus­sia poses. Out­go­ing U.S. Am­bas­sad­or to Rus­sia Mi­chael Mc­Faul called Rus­sia’s hand­ling of se­cur­ity at the Games “an achieve­ment” in an in­ter­view with CNN on Monday.

But se­cur­ity threats of bombs in tooth­paste to shoe bombs to an at­temp­ted hi­jack­ing of a Turk­ish air­plane to So­chi still earned head­lines that left of­fi­cials con­cerned.

The Results: 6

In the last three areas, the pos­it­ives clearly out­weigh the neg­at­ives. If Olympics were judged solely on the pomp and cir­cum­stance, Putin could walk away feel­ing good. For him, the Games were de­signed to be a dis­trac­tion from the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems that the West has with Rus­sia. It was the be­gin­ning of the Rus­si­an comeback on the world stage.

But those is­sues might have proved to be too big to hide. Putin’s com­plete Olympic win per­ished along with the dozens of pro­test­ers in neigh­bor­ing Ukraine.

However, that’s not stop­ping Putin from tak­ing a vic­tory lap.

“We have a great ex­pres­sion, ‘If you don’t take a risk then you don’t drink the cham­pagne,’” Putin said Monday. “So today we can raise a glass to our joint res­ult.”

Putin may put on a strong pub­lic face. But it was his own de­sire to hold on to Rus­sia’s po­s­i­tion in the re­gion and his strangle­hold on his coun­try that hurt his scores in the end.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4756) }}

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