SOCHI, RUSSIA – Triumphant in the midst of global condemnation, Vladimir Putin clinked his Champagne flute with leading sports officials, toasting the success of his pet project in Sochi.
Under chandeliers in ornate surroundings, the wine was flowing over lunch during the Paralympics this past week as the Russian president saluted the transformational effect of his nation’s six-week sporting extravaganza.
For Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were a validation of modern Russia’s place on the world stage and the nation’s “invariably kind attitude toward friends.”
But between the Olympians leaving the Black Sea resort of Sochi last month and the Paralympians arriving, Putin became rapidly isolated in the international community as Russian forces took over Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, only 300 miles (480 km) away.
The Paralympics closed Sunday night with a patriotic, high-tempo ceremony attended by Putin just as voting ended in a referendum in Crimea — denounced in the West as illegitimate — on whether it should secede from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.
Although Ukraine backed off from boycotting the Paralympics, the crisis afflicting their homeland remained on the minds of athletes competing in Russia. In protest, Ukrainian Paralympic athletes covered their medals during podium ceremonies.
“That is how we show our protest and disagreement that our country could be divided and part of it could be excluded from Ukraine,” said Iuliia Batenkova, who won six medals in Sochi, including one gold. “Crimea is my motherland, where I was born, and of course I worry about it. I want peace.”
Ukraine Paralympic Committee President Valeriy Sushkevych on Sunday decried what he called Russian “aggression” in his country and said he hoped that Putin “recognizes the danger of what we call war.”
Russia’s intervention in a neighboring country seemed to be at odds with the message it intended in this $50 billion-plus re-branding exercise — that of a nation that had moved on since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin’s government remains convinced that the successful transformation of Sochi — once a decaying Soviet-era resort — into a world-class tourist hot spot will override the current diplomatic tensions.
“The new Russia is a Russia that is capable of carrying out large-scale projects, capable of creating modern infrastructure in a record short time scale, both in terms of sports and the rest of society,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told reporters in Sochi. “The new Russia is a Russia that is open to the whole world.”
That’s the impression some visitors had after the high-profile Winter Olympics — but it could be a rapidly shifting vision.
“I think (the Olympics) did improve the image (of Russia),” Martin Sorrell, CEO of global advertising giant WPP, said in an interview in Sochi. “But now you have this controversy over Ukraine, Crimea, and that’s driving a lot of the perception.”
But the world cannot afford to ostracize Putin, Sorrell said, especially with domestic polls indicating that Putin’s popularity has risen as a result of the games that are the centerpiece of his third term as president.
“Putin is extremely strong, has a clear approach and a clear strategy — you might agree with it, you might disagree with it — but he has considerable resources of all types,” said Sorrell. “We in the West don’t quite get how influential Russia is or how influential we are prepared to accept them being, politically and economically. But they are a force to be reckoned with.”
The scale of the Sochi venture — the most expensive Olympic Games ever, winter or summer — was matched by the record-breaking achievement of the Russian athletes who topped the Paralympic medal table.
“Russia always wants to try to be the best,” biathlete Alena Kaufman, who won three golds for Russia, said through a translator. “We have definitely done that.”
Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of Sochi’s organizing committee, is convinced that attitudes have already shifted in this vast nation during the 10-day Paralympics, breaking down a “mental barrier” in Russian society.
“We have broken the stereotypes about people with impairments,” Chernyshenko said. “We are really different as a country.”
Visiting Sochi from Moscow, 30-year-old Yulia Simonova found moving around the resort to be far easier in a wheelchair than in the Russian capital. She said attitudes in Russia toward the disabled have steadily improved in the years since she was not allowed to attend a regular school.
“I felt very comfortable in Sochi and I could go around very easily,” Simonova said. “Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s much better.”
Throughout the games, International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven had steered clear of the political tensions hanging over the event. At Sunday’s closing ceremony, Craven instead focused on Russia’s progress toward inclusivity for the disabled.
The challenge for Sochi is now ensuring that the new resorts carved into the mountains and on the coast have a legacy and don’t become empty, crumbling memories of Russia’s 2014 winter of sports.
The stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies in Sochi could remain largely empty until 2018, when soccer’s World Cup comes to Russia. But the first Formula One race will be staged this year around Sochi’s Olympic Park and officials are anticipating an influx of tourists to the mountain village of Krasnaya Polyana, which has been transformed into a Swiss-style ski resort.
But the next major event planned here — the Group of Eight summit in June — is already in turmoil. The U.S. and six other nations have suspended planning for the summit after Russian-backed forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea two weeks ago.
By then, the memories of Olympic and Paralympic glory — witnessed by record TV audiences globally — could have faded.
Chernyshenko, who led Sochi’s Olympic bid and staging, hopes not.
“We have created a fantastic cumulative effect that united the nation and turned dramatically the attitude from abroad to Russia,” he said. “Everyone recognizes that we are modern, efficient, transparent and very hospitable. We delivered what we have promised.”