The 2014 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies kickoff Friday in Sochi, Russia. Over the next two weeks, about 3,000 athletes from more than 80 nations are expected to compete in 98 medal events. In recent days, however, issues such as terrorism concerns and Sochi’s preparedness have come to the forefront. Here, Philip D’Agati, assistant academic specialist in Northeastern’s Department of Political Science and author of “Cold War and the 1984 Olympic Games: A Soviet-American Surrogate War,” discusses what these Olympics mean to Russia, what the lasting impressions of the 2014 Games might be, and what to watch for.
How has Russia handled the planning and preparation for the Winter Olympics since winning the bid in 2007? Will the International Olympic Committee regret giving the games to Sochi?
The Sochi Games are about demonstrating the power, the majesty, and the authority of the Russian Federation. It’s not about urban planning or economic improvement. This was all about making Russia look good. In the end I assume Sochi will go into debt but the Russians don’t care. And I don’t think the International Olympic Committee will regret giving the Winter Olympics to Sochi. The Russian government has done a really good job putting the Olympic venues together. It is nothing if not methodical about how it wants these games to look.
In some ways, the circumstances timing-wise are really unfortunate for the Russian Federation. You had the Boston Marathon bombings, which were allegedly committed by people with connections to the Chechen region, which is now threatening to attack the Sochi Games. Then you have the remarks made by Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov [about there being no gay people living there]. And there is also the Edwin Snowden controversy and the fact he is now in Russia. It is a series of unfortunate events that can really tarnish things for the Russian Federation.
What do you think people will be talking about when these Sochi Games are over?
If an attack occurs on the games, that is going to be the story and it doesn’t matter what else happens. It’s the lasting story from the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and it would be the story for these games. I have a funny feeling what will end up happening is the stories leading up to the games will blur away and it will be the performance of some athlete or nation that will outshine everything. The whole issue about anti-gay laws will also fade away. There is no way the Russian government is going to tolerate someone at the local level arresting a gay athlete. Now if someone were to make a huge public spectacle and force the Russian Federation to do something, it would be embarrassing for both sides.
What is the one Winter Olympic event or competition you are most looking forward to?
I would say the men’s hockey tournament. The Russians had for decades a long history of success in the hockey tournament. And then they lost to our little upstart team in 1980 and were recently embarrassed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, finishing sixth overall. Putin himself was furious at the performance.
The Canadians, the 2010 gold medalists, have guaranteed that Russia will not win the gold medal, the Russians have guaranteed they will win it, and the U.S. has guaranteed nothing except to say that it will try its best. It’s going to be a knock down fight. If the Russians win, the nation will go crazy. And if the Canadians win, the Russians will be furious. It’s going to be fun.