Olympean blow at the Kremlin

Russian national pride has been badly dented by poor performance at the winter Olympics. It is being widely read as a political failure, reflecting the effects of corruption, and a regime which promotes PR over professionalism
Dmitry Travin
8 March 2010

Russia’s performance at the winter Olympics in Vancouver was the worst in the entire history of the country’s participation in the games. Russian athletes won a total of just three gold medals. This was unheard of in the Soviet period under the totalitarian regime, or in the post-Soviet period, when the Russian economy underwent a difficult transformation and the state had no money at all to allocate to the development of sport.

The political consequences of the sporting failure

The obvious failure of the athletes had become a political event even before the end of the Olympics. Immediately after the closing ceremony, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commented on the miserable results and called on the relevant officials to proffer their voluntary resignation, rather than waiting to be fired for incompetence.

The harshness of the president’s conclusion can be appreciated if one takes into account the fact that the first candidate for resignation, Russian minister of sport Vitaly Mutko, has been an old friend of Vladimir Putin from the time they worked together at City Hall in St. Petersburg. The other candidate for resignation, the chairman of the Russian Olympic committee Leonid Tyagachev, is thought to be Putin’s skiing trainer. In other words, Dmitry Medvedev has no compunction in striking out at political figures previously considered untouchable in the Russian power hierarchy.

Interestingly, for the first time in recent years the discussion very soon became a matter of politics rather than sport.

For example, the recent failure of the Russian football team to qualify for the world championship drew harsh criticism of the leading players from some commentators. This criticism varied from relatively mild assessments (the guys didn’t give their it their best effort at the deciding match) to extremely harsh (there had been serious infringements of the rules governing pre-match behaviour just before the match they lost to Slovenia). But at that time no one said the sporting failure was a reflection of the socio-economic crisis or looked for an economic reason for the defeat.It’s all different now. Criticism of athletes who fail to meet fans’ expectations is rarely heard in the Russian press, but political explanations for what happened are increasingly being sought. This can be explained by the fact that the Olympic Games failure has dealt a serious blow to the main propaganda thesis of the Putin era, according to which Russia would supposedly rise from its knees after the numerous humiliations of the 1990s.

Will Russia rise from its knees?

Until recently, this thesis was extremely important. Opponents of Putin maintained that the increase in living standards in the 2000s was fuelled more by high oil prices than wise Russian government policies. In their opinion Putin was more interested in populist measures and preserving his high level of support, and actually stopped all reforms directed at strengthening the economy.

It was quite difficult for his supporters to deny these facts. They countered that the Putin regime had made people proud of their country again. Russians once more felt that Russia was strong and standing up robustly for its interests in the world.  This increased confidence would, they maintained, lead to greater successes than in the recent period of humiliation. 

This argument was undermined by the failure at the Olympics.  Sporting victories have always been very important, both for the Soviet Union in the past and for Russia today.  For the masses pride in Russia’s achievements was almost entirely based on these sporting victories and the victory in WWII. The USSR economy was completely uncompetitive and by the 1970s-1980s many people already had begun to realize that Soviet living standards were lower than in Western countries. But records and medals were an objective sign of Russia’s dominant position in the world.

Major sporting defeats left no room for pride in Soviet hearts. Fortunately for the Soviet leaders, they didn’t happen very often. The scale of the current defeat is unprecedented.   The fact that Russia is no longer in the leading group of sportsmen and has not gained leader status economically either makes it very difficult for an average Russian to be proud of his country or, indeed, the political leadership under whom this disaster has occurred.

Perhaps the defeat at the Olympics would have caused less of a political uproar if it had happened a few years ago. But Russian national pride was dealt a blow almost immediately after the economic crisis had dealt a severe blow to their wallets. It should be remembered that in Russia the economic crisis caused a greater drop in GDP than in leading western countries (by almost 8% in 2009).   The other BRIC countries (China, India and Brazil) preserved their economic growth, although at lower rates than before the crisis.

Blame people or the system as a whole?

The criticism levelled at individual officials in charge of Russian sport is not as harsh as other recent political statements.  President Medvedev’s opinion was soon reinforced by Anton Sikharulidze.  Previously a famous figure skater, he is now an official of “United Russia” and head of the State Duma Committee for Sport and Physical Culture.   It is quite possible that he himself is aiming for one of the highest sporting positions in Russia, which is why he has been such a harsh critic.

However, there is no reason to believe that the people in charge of Russian sport are any less capable than they used to be. The level of Russian officials has always been approximately the same. So it seems likely that those critics are right who see this as a reflection of how the Russian economy functions today.

Putin’s political authoritarianism and the lack of any democratic control over the executive have led recently to a rapid increase in Russian official corruption, particularly kickbacks. An official provides the finance for a project from the state budget, but the private companies responsible for the project secretly send a certain percentage of the sum allocated to them to this official’s personal bank account.

There is every reason to believe that money allocated by the state for the development of sport is spent in a similar way. Officials had pocketed large sums of money, so there were insufficient funds to train athletes for the Olympics. It is particularly important to bear in mind that during the crisis the levels of state finance for many projects have been reduced, but the officials kept the size of kickbacks at previous, pre-crisis levels, which dealt the athletes a further blow.

On the whole the overwhelming majority of Russians don’t want to think about the damage that corruption is doing to the economy of their country. The connection between kickbacks and the economic slump is not obvious to the ordinary person. But the failure at the Olympics has forced many sports fans to think about possible economic causes, because their feelings of national pride have been affronted.

Kickbacks are a very serious problem. But some Russian mass media outlets are making even harsher conclusions. The internet publication gazeta.ru has written that the failure in Vancouver reflects the failed policies of Russia today and the substitution of political PR for professionalism.  Large-scale PR campaigns are intended to create the impression of success among the voters.  This happens in all areas of the economy and economic life in Russia and takes the place of high-quality professional work.  The same thing has happened in sport. But the Olympic criteria for success are objective (medals and results), so PR was no use and the whole truth was revealed.

The position adopted by gazeta.ru deserves our attention. It was in this publication that Medvedev published his sensational article “Forward, Russia” several months ago, so it is reasonable to conclude that it is close to the President. This in turn leads us to believe that Medvedev is a great deal more dissatisfied with the regime created by Vladimir Putin than is evident from his official presidential speeches.

Everything will be decided in four years

However, paradoxical as it may sound, I believe that this Olympic defeat may work in Putin’s favour, and ultimately even strengthen his regime. The next winter Olympic games will be held in the Russian city of Sochi. By securing the location for the games, Putin has put his personal authority on the line. If the failure had happened in Sochi, rather than Vancouver, public disappointment would have been very much more serious.

The Russian political leadership clearly had no idea of how serious the current sporting situation is. If by some miracle Russia had managed to achieve acceptable results in Vancouver, Putin would probably not have paid much attention to the preparations for Sochi. But now he will certainly focus on the next Olympics, and find ways of allocating additional resources for athletes’ training.

It is clear that the economic and social problems of the country cannot all be solved in this way. But a strong authoritarian regime can always concentrate its efforts on two or three key projects, where it can truly achieve success. Especially if it is backed up by the revenue from oil and gas exports. So Putin will probably be able to ensure excellent Russian performances at the Olympics in Sochi. And the wider masses will once more sing his praises. In Russia it is, after all, common practice to believe that individual officials are to blame for all the failures, while the achievements are all the work of the leader.

Dmitri Travin is Research Director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Centre of Modernization Studies

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