SOCHI, RUSSIA – As the sport got under way in earnest in Sochi on Friday, and the first medals were won, the tide of public opinion in Russia and the world began to turn, slowly.
The Sochi Olympics have been tainted by myriad controversies during the buildup — from gay rights to corruption — and many expected the games themselves to be similarly disastrous, with concerns about the intrusiveness of security, the absence of fans and shoddy construction work.
But over the course of the week, culminating in the sublime opening ceremony Friday night and the first action on the slopes and the rink, the mood turned from a backlash against Vladimir Putin’s grandiose Olympic vision to something of a backlash against the backlash.
Boris Akunin, the novelist who was instrumental in the movement of street protests against Putin, wrote on his blog that he found the squall of criticism about the Olympics among Russian anti-Putin liberals distasteful.
“I am getting really annoyed by the total Facebook masochism about how it’s all shameful, ridiculous and badly organized in Sochi,” he said. “Well, maybe. But why the schadenfreude? Can we not split the two themes, and talk separately about what has been stolen and embezzled, and separately about the festival of sport? For God’s sake, I am not ready to live by the principle that ‘whatever is bad for Putin is good for us.’ “
The Russian officials in charge of the most expensive Olympics in history have been accusing the media of unfair criticism all week, of course.
The Russian railways chief, Vladimir Yakunin, a close friend of Putin and the object of a number of anti-corruption investigations by the opposition, perceived a sinister Russophobic conspiracy in the stories about Sochi by Western journalists, and noted that in the run-up to the games, a number of major magazines had published front covers bearing caricatures of Putin. “A sporting festival, against its traditions, is being used as a powerful instrument of pressure on public opinion by those forces which are annoyed by Russia’s successes,” he said.
Putin himself openly said that one of the main goals of the Olympics was to influence public opinion inside Russia and across the world — to prove that the country was capable of putting on such a large-scale event and to boost national pride. But Yakunin said journalists were using “pseudo-facts” to deliberately create a negative impression.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the West would stop criticizing Russia only when the country was on its knees, while Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak accused journalists of ruining their own hotel rooms in pursuit of a story. He told the Wall Street Journal that surveillance cameras had captured people deliberately leaving their showers on all day to cause chaos. (When asked why there were surveillance cameras in the bathrooms, he made a swift exit and his spokespeople later claimed there had been a translation error.) Despite the protestations of Kozak and others, the situation in some of the media hotels at the beginning of the week was truly troubling, but it became clear that for most of the athletes the accommodation was flawless.
The U.S. bobsled racer who on Saturday had to smash a hole in his bathroom door to escape, having been locked in, was the exception rather than the rule. Facilities and the mountain courses were also praised as excellent.
In the squall of negativity about the poor accommodation, last-minute construction and corruption frenzy, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that an entire set of Olympic venues and infrastructure has emerged in the space of a few years. The security has been far less invasive than most expected, and the opening ceremony was almost universally well-received by Russians and foreigners alike.
In the city of Sochi itself, which is a 40-minute train ride from the Olympic venues, the mood is also turning. Previously there had been a distinctly ambivalent attitude to the games there. People recognized that cash was being poured into their city, but were unsure whether they would ever see any of it, and irritated by the round-the-clock construction, debilitating traffic jams and blatant corruption.
But as the opening ceremony started, locals crushed into a series of venues to watch it on big screens, and there was a sense of genuine excitement and a desire to leave the recriminations until later and enjoy the sport.
Nevertheless, even as the first day proper of the Olympics unfolded Saturday, at least 20 people were detained in Moscow for the crime of peacefully standing with umbrellas in protest at Kremlin pressure on the country’s only independent television station, which has been removed from a number of cable providers in recent weeks.
Gay rights activists were also detained in the capital as the opening ceremony unfolded, for attempting to stage a small protest on Red Square.
These Olympics may not be rainbow-colored, but they are not all black and white either.