This article is part of the Ellison Center blog Series on Sochi. Click here to read more as we cover the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia!
By Sarah McPhee
Russia has a historic preoccupation with national identity, and Sochi is a part of the plan to shape the modern global perception of the country. Hosting mega-events is a common method of international legitimization for major emerging economies, but international relations theorists have largely ignored this phenomenon with regard to sport. Yet “states burdened with unattractive political and social values that impact others’ perception of them deriving from … particular historical events, human rights issues or poverty appear to have much more to gain from mobilising soft power to (positively) change their image” through sport (Grix & Lee, 2013).
Sochi, known as “the winter capital,” is meant to be the new symbol for the modern Russian image, a shining subtropical tourist mecca — the perfect showcase to shatter stereotypes. Nikolai Ostrapenko, author of “Nation Branding of Russia through the Sochi Olympic Games of 2014,” lamented that Russia is nation that can accomplish anything and “challenge the world from every possible perspective,” but has always been “portrayed as grand, mysterious, and unfortunately dark” (Ostrapenko, 2010). Russia has been keenly aware of global perceptions, and a reputation for backwardness requires rebranding, as Ostrapenko insisted:
Many countries have closely understood the role of their global image in attracting the attention of international organizations, foreign-aid donors, and providers of technical assistance, as well as that of trade partners, investment bankers, and the global travel and hospitality outfits. Positioning the nation as a global brand is becoming more and more recognized and advantageous for small and big countries alike, though building a nation’s brand equity requires time, money, and lots of work (Ostrapenko, 2010).
Russians began with a great deal of enthusiasm for the games, according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center. In 2007, Russians reported a hope for increased prestige for the country (52 percent), a boost for athletic activities (48 percent), and a rise in national self-consciousness (26 percent). According to the daily newspaper Moscow News, 81 percent of the Russian population was in favor of the Sochi Olympic bid. That was the highest level of support among all the candidate countries.
Russians are not the only party hopeful about the Sochi Games. Media giant NBC agreed to pay $775 million for the rights to Sochi 2014, a price tag is almost as steep as the $820 million the media giant spent on the 2010 Vancouver Games. NBC lost a reported $233 million in Vancouver, but even months before the Sochi Games, NBC’s research shows that awareness of the Winter Olympics is at record levels. Nielsen and Associated Press polls indicate over half of all Americans plan to follow the Olympics but only 19 percent are confident that Russia can keep the Olympics safe (Blum, 2014). NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus explained, “NBC [is] emphasizing that this is a Russian Olympics. They believe that recent political news about the country has raised Russia’s profile in the U.S., and they hope to capitalize on that” (Mickle, 2013).
The Olympics are a natural opportunity for demonstrations of soft power and goodwill. It is a tremendous opportunity for both ambitious and established nations to draw attention to their positive qualities, for host cities to upgrade their venues and for corporations to make money. Yet the Games are also powerful reminders of the darker side of the human spirit. Security is dramatized in modern Olympic events, and with good reason. Munich 1972 is an infamous example of high hopes, failed security and the long shadows cast by the Olympic Games. During the height of the Cold War, Olympic organizers, as well as German citizens, were highly conscious of the memory of the Berlin 1936 Olympics, which were meant to be the world debut for the modern German state. Munich organizers, operating within the unfortunate shadow of Berlin 1936, made a tragic error that resulted in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes. “Showing sensitivity to the broader political significations of security, they believed that taking … threats seriously would require a heavy security presence that would resonate with the 1936 “Nazi Games”. The official slogan of the 1972 Olympics was “The Carefree Games”, and so security was intentionally minimized to protect this image (Boyle & Haggarty, 2010).
Improving the national image is of paramount importance when undertaking any mega-event, and the International Olympic Committee demands that the Olympics be secure without reminding anyone too much of the need for security. Unfortunately for Putin, in the aftermath of the recent Volgograd bus bombings, security is the topic of constant speculation. Much has been made of the iron curtain that has temporarily fallen around the resort town. To answer concerns about Olympic safety, Putin recently suggested that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings by Chechens inspired the pronounced security around Sochi. In further efforts to control the narrative, Putin has used the uncertain environment as an excuse to ban journalists known to be critical of the regime. However, deflecting attention to the security failures of other events and excluding critical reporters cannot possibly help increase the prestige of his country, the ultimate goal of the Games.
Sarah is a 2015 REECAS master’s student. Find more of Sarah’s posts on Sochi here.
Blum, R. (2014) “AP-GfK Sochi Winter Olympics Poll: More than half Americans plan to follow Olympics,” Associated Press.
Boyle, P. and Haggerty, K.D. (2012) “Planning for the Worst: Risk, Uncertainty and the Olympic Games,” The British Journal of Sociology. 63: 242. 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2012.01408.x.
Charlton, A. (Feb 5, 2014) “Putin, recalling Boston bombers, wants Sochi safe,” Associated Press.
Grix, J. and Lee, D. (2013) ”Soft Power, Sports Mega-Events and Emerging States: The Lure of the Politics of Attraction.” Global Society 27: 523. 10.1080/13600826.2013.827632.
Tripp Mickle, (November 4, 2013) “NBC Bullish on Profitability of Sochi Olympics,” Sports Business Journal, 5.
Ostrapenko, N. (2010) “Nation Branding of Russia through the Sochi Olympic Games of 2014,” Journal of Management Policy and Practice 11, 62.