Reading all the positive foreign reactions to the Olympics, I can’t help imagining how a flunky of Russian President Vladimir Putin would put together a selection of quotes to please the boss — to make the president feel as though he had won all of Russia’s world-beating 33 medals, including 13 golds.
The Washington Post, known for its anti-Putin editorial line, published this from the Associated Press: “All-new facilities, unthinkable in the Soviet era of drab shoddiness, showcased how far Russia has come in the two decades since it turned its back on communism.”
“His hockey team failed to follow the script. But just about everything else went to plan for a watching Vladimir Putin,” reported the Guardian. “By the closing ceremony — which featured ballet from the Bolshoi, music by Rachmaninov and tributes to Tolstoy and Kandinsky plus the usual protocol — the atmosphere was one of pure celebration swathed in the colors of the Russian flag.”
“Vladimir Putin may now allow himself a smile,” France’s Le Figaro wrote, calling the games “an organizational and athletic success.”
This is the kind of publicity that no amount of money spent on English-language propaganda channels such as Russia Today or public-relations agencies such as Ketchum Inc. can buy. What mattered was not that Russia spent $50 billion, but that the world actually liked what it bought.
Grumbling about unfinished hotels and weird twin toilets gave way to admiration for the way Russia rebuilt the city of Sochi, once a shabby Soviet-era resort. “It is amazing what they have done, not just the volume of construction,” the Miami Herald quoted U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun as saying. “If you look at the bridges and roads, it is really quality construction and we are very impressed.”
Athletes liked it, too. “This was the most beautiful Olympics I have ever taken part in,” Czech veteran hockey player Jaromir Jagr told iDnes.cz.
Even the 70,000 troops and police who inundated Sochi were dressed in friendly-looking, colorful clothes. “Their policemen and soldiers, amid the gargantuan but rarely oppressive security operation, never stopped smiling,” the Telegraph observed. No one failed to mention the fact that all the security worries from before the Olympics had been misplaced.
Russians, for their part, were blown away by their team’s unexpected success after the shameful 11th-place showing in Vancouver four years ago. “Olympics is war and we have won this one,” publisher Yevgeny Kapyev wrote triumphantly on Facebook. The Russian hockey team’s hotly contested defeat at the hands of the U.S. squad, and the cold-blooded beating it took from Finland, were compensated by a veritable rain of medals toward the end of the Olympics. Russia ended up earning medals in more events than any other team.
To be sure, in my Kremlin flunky impersonation, I’m skating around some mild criticism to be found in newspaper articles. I do not want to upset my president as he basks in his success, particularly considering that the warm and fuzzy feeling could be short-lived.
The Olympics were, after all, only a sporting event. After seven years of preparation, they raced by in 17 days. Sporting events are not meant to have any lasting effect, no matter what political importance one might attach to them. There will always be the next world championship, the next Olympics. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now hunted by the protesters who overthrew him last weekend, knows all about the ephemeral nature of sporting success. It was as recently as the summer of 2012 that Ukraine received rave reviews for its co-hosting of the European soccer championship, a major event that drew hundreds of thousands of fans.
Back then, harmless patriotic feeling in Kiev ran high. People decorating their cars with national flags were not thinking about riots and revolutions. Things went downhill from there as Ukraine’s corrupt elite failed to contain its greed. Both Ukrainians and the ever-fickle international media quickly forgot the soccer magic.
For Putin, avoiding a similar fate will be a much tougher job than staging even the most spectacular Olympics in history.
Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.