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
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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.


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