It’s early to say if the Sochi Games will be a crowning achievement for modern Russia or “a black hole into which are sucked expectations, hopes, privacy, dignity and nausea,” as ESPN talk show host Keith Olbermann declared this week.
The prisms through which Westerners and Russians view the XXII Olympic Winter Games are as different as how they enjoy vodka. (Straight with a pickle chaser in Russia. Vodka cocktails abroad.)
The question is whether Brand Russia will always mean one thing to Russians and another to the Westerners? Or, can these Olympics begin to bridge two parallel universes of perception and reality?
International media are having a field day with reports of ill-prepared accommodations, incomplete buildings, huge cost overruns and corruption. But what’s new? Isn’t this the case for every Olympics, where perennial predictions of “they will never be ready in time” always dominate early headlines?
What is to be expected when 10,000 journalists arrive a week before the Games but still need to file stories and post tweets? The weird and the negative sell and go viral while the other stories fall by the wayside.
Most media have in fact come here pre-wired to uncover any rotten apples in Putin’s latest gold-plated apple cart. This has been the case in my 24 years of working in Russia, and little has changed.
It is equally true the Russian politicians deserve lifetime gold medals for ham-handedness in mismanaging the country’s brand and the government’s reputation. In Sochi, world records have been set for handing negative storylines to the media on a silver platter: corruption and waste of shocking proportion, anti-LGBT laws and the rounding up and killing of stray dogs, to name a few.
But, barring any serious incident such as a successful terrorist attack or a collapsed structure, there is no doubt that the Olympic spirit and the thrill of the world’s greatest sports competition will overshadow the early negative storylines. The Sochi Olympics will be viewed as a big success. And, that is good for brand Russia on the world stage.
The really interesting thing for me is not how the international community is judging the Olympics (which is predictable), but how Russians are. Russians spend little time talking about costs, corruption and construction. Not because they don’t care and not because local media has avoided these topics. Quite simply, Russians hardly consider excessive waste, massive corruption or shoddy construction as news.
Russians are preoccupied by national pride, being the center of worldwide attention and most of all by how the Russian Olympic Team will place in the medals race. I remember well the depression and abject disgust of Russian colleagues and friends after Vancouver when their national team won only three gold medals — the country’s weakest performance in any Winter Olympics. “What’s happened to our dominance of winter sports?” everyone asked.
This is the prism through which Russians will judge the Sochi Olympics. If their team ranks third or fourth in the overall medals count, the $50 billion President Putin has spent will be viewed as a wise investment and his approval ratings will soar. If the team comes up short on gold, Sochi will be viewed as a massive boondoggle personally owned by Putin.
The Sochi stakes are massive for both President Putin and brand Russia at home and around the globe. I think there is a good chance that the president will exceed the contrasting expectations of the international community and his Russian compatriots. For once in long time, parallel universes of perception and reality might start to converge tonight as the curtain is raised for the official opening ceremonies.
Peter Necarsulmer is executive chairman and co-founder of PBN Hill+Knowlton Strategies.
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