The resounding success of the Olympic Games at Sochi by many measures has probably surprised the global public, given the drumbeat of negative media coverage in the run-up to the opening ceremonies. Russia’s public diplomacy at Sochi has indeed been successful, but it has achieved a different kind of success from what we have come to expect in recent times. As a Great Power, Russia has said to the world in a straightforward and unvarnished way, ‘get to know us better, this is how we really are for good and for ill, deal with it.’
Media criticism prior to the event notwithstanding, Russia has hosted an excellent Winter Games that is in all respects the equal of its peers of recent times. They have built high quality facilities in and around Sochi and created a stunningly beautiful purpose-built winter resort upslope for the on-snow events. Tubes of dry ice laid beneath the snow on the jumps for the aerials to maintain consistent conditions amidst variable weather are one of many examples of quality innovation that was praised by commentators at the competition. Welcoming hosts, keen competitors and a rising crescendo of global audience enthusiasm for the events underscore that Sochi has been a win for the Russian people as much as for their government.
Russia’s primary mission was to stage an Olympic Games that was safe, accessible and enjoyable to spectators from at home and abroad.
The public diplomacy of Sochi makes the point that Russia as a contemporary Great Power, as a member of the BRICS, has arrived, even if not at the place to which Western commentators wish they might have arrived. Boris Yeltsin’s post-Soviet Russia of the 1990s was portrayed in Western media to publics in North America and Western Europe as on a journey, with Western assistance, to market economy democracy. But by the end of the Yeltsin era many Russians perceived their own country as weakened and plagued by corruption. The leadership of Vladimir Putin has raised the estimation of many, even if by no means all, Russians, of their nation and its place in the world.
President Putin, who did the Chinese government a significant favour in August 2008 by invading the Georgian Republic during the Beijing Summer Games, violating the millennia-old Olympic Truce and in process distracting human rights protesters from focusing on Beijing, learned much from China’s effective staging of their Olympiad. Russia’s primary mission was to stage an Olympic Games that was safe, accessible and enjoyable to spectators from at home and abroad. This they did. Putin’s ambitious Olympic development strategy for Sochi, a $51 billion investment bashed by Western media for corruption and cost overruns, is a long-run plan to combat al-Qa’eda-backed terrorism in the northern Caucasus region of Russia with economic development, creating permanent jobs and developing marketable skills for the local population and attracting inward investment to the region. For this he can hardly be faulted.
Western observers rightly join with Russians campaigning for norms of human rights to which people across cultures and continents broadly aspire. But Western governments and publics need to accept that ultimately the peoples of Russia, China and other emerging powers must bring about social change in their own societies through their own political and cultural processes. The West cannot impose social change upon emerging powers through some sort of neo-colonialist threat of force. Only the softest of soft power approaches, social leadership by example, by the people to the people, is likely to have any credibility and be seen as persuasive. The commitments of LGBT former Olympians such as New Zealand’s Blake Skjellerup and the USA’s Johnny Weir to be present at Olympic venues, not to protest but to represent the excellence of their sport, is illustrative of the values embodied in the Olympic movement. The International Olympic Committee, the guardian of Olympic ideals of excellence and respect, is committed to bringing those values to Olympic events and by bringing the Olympics to all the world’s peoples. Russia and the Russian people inevitably will be changed by the Sochi Olympiad, in many ways that supporters of human rights will endorse, even if protesters have been kept away from the centre of Sochi during the Games.
Once the Olympic flame has been extinguished Russia as a nation will be seen as stronger and more successful than before, but perhaps more importantly Russia will be seen for the place that it is and the people that they are, for good and for ill. For the public diplomacy strategies of Great Powers and emerging powers, this may be a step forward over strategies of recent years that seek to present nations hosting sport mega-events as utopian settings, papering over social discord and cultural practices thought to be unpopular internationally. As South Africa contemplates a potential bid for an upcoming summer Olympics, reviewing the successes and weaknesses of their own 2010 FIFA football World Cup, Russia’s lessons from Sochi for a newer approach to shaping a public diplomacy strategy are worth contemplating.
Dr Pigman holds a BA from Swarthmore College, MA from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a D Phil from the University of Oxford. He heads a global strategy and political consulting practice. He was formerly Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Change and Governance, Rutgers University, Newark; Member of the Faculty in Political Economy at Bennington College (Vermont, USA); Equity Research Liaison, CIBC World Markets, New York; Director of Graduate Studies, Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent at Brussels; and Lecturer in International Political Economy, Dr. Pigman has recently co-edited a special issue of the journal /Sport in Society/ on diplomacy and international sport. His article 'International Sport and Diplomacy's Public Dimension: Governments, Sporting Federations and the Global Audience' will be published in the March 2014 issue of /Diplomacy and Statecraft.