Action Replay: Putin’s Games

The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were the subject of a large-scale boycott following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The recent Winter Olympics in Sochi managed to avoid anything similar relating to the situation in Ukraine, but were still not uncontroversial.

New events, such as half-pipe skiing, were staged for the first time, on the basis of their supposed appeal to spectators and TV viewers. And as usual at such enormous events, global companies have been keen to sponsor and gain attention, and also to get publicity without the expense of official involvement (as ambush marketers). Some of the ambushers did pretty well, with Red Bull winning overall (according to Global Language Monitor) and, somewhat incongruously, Subway beating Rolex.

Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Sommers saw the Games as ‘the great success Russia hoped for’ ( Money and development were brought to the Caucasus region, and the authors were almost rhapsodic in their praise: ‘Sochi shows that Russia can pull off world-class projects on the global stage. The games proved how Russia can transform its economy through infrastructure investment in a way that can build up a middle class while countering religious and racist fundamentalist discontent.’

But not everyone was so enthusiastic (see December’s Action Replay). Of the £30bn cost of the Games, perhaps one-third went in corruption and embezzlement. Two thousand families were evicted from their homes so Olympic infrastructure could be built. The ecosystem of the Sochi National Park was badly damaged, and the prospects for the city becoming a big winter resort are at best dubious. The clumsy harassment of a Pussy Riot protest did the Russian state’s image no favours, either.

A large Italianate residence near Sochi, known colloquially as Putin’s Palace and allegedly built for his personal use during his first spell as Russian president, was recently sold for £215m to a fellow oligarch. So Putin’s bank balance at least is now in a healthy condition.


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