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Analysis & Opinion
02.03.10 Looking Ahead To Sochi
By Roland Oliphant

After the national debacle in Vancouver, the Russian authorities are taking out all the stops to ensure that the Sochi 2014 games are a success. But why is Sochi so important for the ruling elite, and can it turn around its athletes’ fortunes in time for the home performance?

The national soul-searching following the Vancouver winter Olympics continued on Monday, with President Dmitry Medvedev demanding that those responsible for the preparations for Vancouver “take responsibility” and submit their letters of resignation. “If they can’t, then we’ll help them,” he added in the menacing tone of his predecessor, the current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Putin himself has been somewhat more restrained, calling only for “serious analysis” in order to “change the situation and create the conditions for a (successful) performance at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.” That led the Nezavizimaya Gazeta daily, like much of the Russian press ever-ready to gaze into its crystal ball on matters surrounding the “tandem,” to hint that Medvedev was just using the opportunity to clear Putin’s appointees out of key posts.

Sochi 2014 has been pushed by the highest levels of government ever since Vladimir Putin flew to Guatemala to personally back his country’s bid in 2007. At the time commentators considered his speech, unusually delivered in heavily accented but (almost) correct English, a key factor in seeing off competition from Pyongyang. From the first the project has attracted billions of dollars in federal spending (Putin announced $12 billion in Guatemala in 2007; by September last year the Vedomosti business daily reported that the budget had inflated to $33 billion), constant plugs by high-level officials, and, say critics, a blank check to trample over the rights of local residents, environmental laws and journalistic freedom.

Why all this effort for a sporting event? “Ask Putin,” said Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies, “he seems to think it’s important, but I’ve no idea why.” Alexei Panin of the Center for Political Information hazarded that there was a lot of personal prestige involved. “At the beginning in 2007 Russia’s victory in winning the bid was equated with a personal victory for Putin,” he said. “Now that we have the tandem it’s a concern of both him and Medvedev, but it’s still predominantly Putin’s project.”

Boosters of Sochi 2014 seldom cite the prime minister’s vanity, however. Their idea is that the investment will turn Sochi into a prestigious luxury resort, and the state-of-the-art facilities built for the games will serve as a training camp for future athletes in the years to come. For the country’s leadership there is personal prestige involved, too. Depending who you talk to this is indeed a great opportunity or a lot of hot air. “It’s definitely not a waste of money,” Panin said. Makarenko, however, wasn’t buying it.

Whatever the motives, it’s clear the Russian government is obviously prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure it succeeds, including pardoning former enemies. Last week Russian Newsweek reported that that Telman Isamilov, a tycoon who has been in self-imposed exile in Turkey after falling out with Putin, may have bought his way back into favor by promising to build hotels in Sochi.

Five star hotels and world class ice arenas are all very nice, but after the drubbing in Vancouver the government will have turn at least as much attention to its athletes if it wants its vanity project to bear fruit. As Makarenko noted, “I’m not sure how much prestige you get if you hold the winter Olympics in Sochi and don’t win.”

So whether or not Medvedev is maneuvering against Putin (which is always possible, but thanks to the opacity of the higher echelons of power unknowable), the call for heads to roll was inevitable. The president did not say any names, but there is little doubt he was talking about two men: Leonid Tyagachev, the president of the Olympic Committee, and the Minister of Sports and Tourism Vitaly Mutko. Both are “creations of Vladimir Putin,” as Nezavizimaya Gazeta put it, in that Tyagachev became president of the Olympic Committee early in Putin’s first presidential term in 2001, and Mutko is a long-time associate of Putin from St. Petersburg.

Part of the reason the media has assumed they are the target of Medvedev’s cutting comments about “taking responsibility” was their reaction to the events in Vancouver. “What amazes me is the reaction of both Tyagechev and Mutko. Neither of them admits that it was a disaster. Both of them say somebody else was to blame,” said Makarenko. “It seems to be a signature feature of the Russian ‘nomenklatura,’ not necessarily limited to sport.”

Mutko told the Russia 24 news channel that he would “quietly go” if asked, but that the results were “not the results of the work of today’s leaders.” “And I don’t know if my leaving will improve the results anyway,” he told the station. Makarenko claimed that in the original broadcast, which he watched at six a.m. on Tuesday morning, Mutko had also called his successor at the Russian Football Union Sergey Fursenko “stupid” for saying he could lead the national team to victory in the 2014 European Championships.

With pressure from the media, the government and organizations like the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, which claims it has sent Tygachev a resignation letter for him to sign, the two men’s tenures are likely to be short-lived. But who will replace them? And would it make a difference anyway?

Medvedev has spoken about favoring “athletes” over “fat cats,” and Irina Rodina, a former world champion figure skater who has previously criticized Tyagachev, has been tipped by some as the next president of the Olympic Committee. But there are also signs that the current political appointments may only be replaced by others. Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the State Duma and United Russia chairman, has apparently told Medvedev that United Russia will supervise preparations for the Sochi Olympics. He did not mention whether that included sports training.

“The first step would be to fire the current managers. The second is to hire those with a different motivation,” said Makarenko. “I’m not very optimistic.” Maybe Mutko was right.
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