Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, a Russian resort near the Black Sea. “It was a historic decision for all countries,” said Dmitry Chernychenko, the city’s bid chief, after the announcement. “Russia will become even more open, more democratic.” He may be right. The IOC claims it’s only concerned about a city’s ability to stage the Games, but many awards appear to have been made to encourage a host country’s political liberalization. That’s largely why Moscow got the 1980 Summer Olympics and Seoul the 1988 ones. Many analysts, pointing to these two events, have maintained that hard-line governments do not last long after the athletes go home.
But don’t bet on such liberalization happening in Russia. The country’s leaders are already using the 2014 extravaganza as a means of advancing their legitimacy, both at home and abroad. Vladimir Putin, who flew to Guatemala City to address the IOC before the vote, crowed that Sochi’s victory had international significance. “This is, without doubt, not just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements,” Putin said, “but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country.” Boris Gryzlov, Speaker of the Duma, called the award “a confirmation that the world is not unipolar, that there are forces which support Russia, which is once again becoming a global leader.” Russian leaders, it seems, cannot help themselves from making the Sochi award into a pat on the head for their policies.
We all hope that Chernychenko is right when he says the Sochi Olympics “will help Russia’s transition as a young democracy.” If only all Russian officials felt that way!