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.
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.
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.
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.
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.