SOCHI, Russia — For organization, the Sochi Games deserve a solid 7 marks out of 10. Unless, of course, you had to shower in cold, brown water in an unfinished mountain hotel and griped about it to #SochiProblems on Twitter.
For atmosphere and a feel-good factor, anywhere from zero to 10, depending on where you’re from and which of the millions of images beamed from Sochi struck you most: glowing Olympians with electric smiles taming ice and snow, going faster, higher and gnarlier; or militiamen horsewhipping and pepper-spraying the women from Pussy Riot, shocking footage the punk band then exploited in its new video.
Many Russians will award high marks, proud of their Olympians’ record haul of medals, of brand new venues and the can-do capacity it took to transform Sochi from decaying Soviet-era resort to the newest outpost on the IOC’s global march. And those visiting from elsewhere, their minds still filled with Soviet-era imagery, found some stereotypes broken and others reinforced as they encountered the country’s first Winter Games.
President Vladimir Putin’s government likes to think the Olympics burnished Russia’s reputation overseas, too. That’s why it threw open the public coffers and leaned on oligarchs to finance Putin’s pharaonic winter wonderland in subtropical Russia. One can now swim with dolphins or (as U.S. skier Julia Mancuso did) surf in the Black Sea in the morning. They can take a new train or ride the new highway into the snowy Caucasus Mountains, and ski on manufactured snow for the afternoon.
“Smiley faces, Sochi’s warm sunshine and the glow of the Olympic gold have melted the ice of skepticism about the new Russia. The Games made our country, our culture, our people closer and easier to understand for the whole world,” Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said Saturday, before today’s last medal events and closing ceremonies.
And the athletes of the Sochi Games — they were a tapestry of accomplishment with only a few stray threads.
American Sage Kotsenburg got the first gold in Sochi, and pity the translators who had to make sense of his snowboarder’s jargon — “stoked,” “sick” — in multiple languages. Shaun White — the franchise — faltered and fell. Tina Maze and Dominique Gisin tied for gold in women’s downhill, a first in 78 years of Olympic Alpine skiing. Overwhelming Dutch dominance in speedskating raised questions about a lack of depth in that sport. High-adrenaline imports from X-Games created increasing shade for traditional sports. The U.S. and Russia, playing hockey and evoking a fabled 1980 game that was drenched in tense detente, played to an American-won shootout this time around before Russia folded and the rivalry fizzled.
The Olympics welcomed female ski jumpers for the first time, not a moment too soon. Adelina Sotnikova gave Russia a gold-medal high and a signature moment for its games when she beat Yuna Kim in figure skating, showing in the process that the sport needs to make its opaque and complex judging system more understandable. Increasingly targeted drug testing caught a Ukrainian cross-country skier, a German biathlete and an Italian bobsledder. A young Russian and her naturalized, American-born husband won snowboarding medals on the same day and grinned together afterward, poster children for a post-Cold War reality.
But those who were mistrustful of Russia were never going to be seduced by precious Olympic metals.
After the harassment and detention of gay rights protesters and environmentalists who documented Olympic-related pollution, the IOC leaves Russia facing tough questions about how it selects Olympic hosts: Should human rights guarantees be a must-have? The IOC kept insisting that the games are above politics, despite evidence everywhere to the contrary.
“The Olympic Games are meant to contribute to a peaceful and better world. This goal was not achieved in Sochi,” said Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. “Russia’s repression continued unabated throughout the games, and the Olympic movement failed to challenge the host country on its pledge to promote human rights.”
Putin seized the Olympic opportunity for some personal rebranding, stroking a Persian leopard at a pre-games photo-op, dropping in for a spot of sports diplomacy at U.S. Olympic headquarters and turning up at venues. Managing to get Putin in the background was the ultimate #Sochiselfie — a new addition to our modern lexicon as spectators and athletes used venues and the Olympic flame as backdrops for DIY souvenir photos.
The weather was perfect — just not necessarily for a Winter Games. Shirtless men soaked in the sun while cross-country Olympians skied by in tank tops.
Security checks were sometimes rigorous, sometimes lax, always ubiquitous — just as one would expect after Islamic rebels further east in the Caucasus claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in December and threatened to target the games. Unless you came to protest, Sochi felt safe.
“We are very positively surprised,” said Alfons Hoermann, president of Germany’s national sports body. “Even the policemen, the policemen are extremely friendly.”
Violence on Russia’s doorstep in Ukraine siphoned away some of the attention Putin sought from Sochi. As riot police fought and killed protesters in Kiev, Twitter analytics by Topsy.com showed Russian-language tweets mentioning Ukraine’s capital or its protest camp starting to outnumber those referencing Sochi or the Olympics.
A gold medal for whining went to journalists who arrived from around the world to find mountain hotels in various states of undress. Their complaints got Sochi off on the wrong foot before competition diverted their attention. The Twitter account SochiProblems quickly picked up more followers than the organizers’ official feed. Organizers of the next Winter Games, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, take note: An unhappy hack can be a global liability.
But Olympians — those who actually matter to the games — have raved about their accommodation and facilities, which worked well and looked good on TV. The spaceship-like ice hockey dome was particularly cool, its roof lighting up with the flags of teams playing inside and displaying their scores. Shame it didn’t see a medal for the home nation, with Russia’s men falling to Finland in the quarterfinals.
Yet even with 100,000 visitors per day, Olympic Park rarely seemed to buzz — too much concrete, too much space, not quite enough people. There were pangs of nostalgia for Vancouver, the 2010 host, where the games benefited from being in a big, cosmopolitan city not isolated on former marshland along the Black Sea coast.
After the games move on, there are plans for Formula One races and 2018 World Cup soccer matches in Sochi. Critics of Olympic waste and the expense of sporting mega-events will be watching to see whether venues fall into disuse.
Even if they don’t, the IOC must ensure that the $51 billion Russia spent to ready Sochi and the mountains behind it for the costliest-ever games is the high-water mark of Olympic extravagance, never to be repeated. Pyeongchang should be easier on the conscience, because it has many existing facilities and is budgeting $7 billion for infrastructure projects, including a high-speed rail line from the capital, Seoul.
Still, the basic recipe of the Olympics — take 2,850 of the planet’s most rigorously prepared athletes and train high-definition cameras on them — practically guarantees good publicity for the host nation. Russia was no exception.
As Kozak noted: “I haven’t heard a single negative evaluation about our hospitality since the games in Sochi began.”