Sochi: Russia’s smiling face

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2014 Winter Olympics
2014 Winter Olympics

This is an article by Miriam Pelusi.

All eyes were on Russia for 17 days. An estimated 3.5 billion people tuned in to the XXII Olympic Winter Games: that is half of the total global population. The Sochi Games also exploded on social media around the globe. The total global fan base of the IOC now stands at 33.9 million subscribers.

Sochi 2014 is a symbol of Russia’s rise. Its mission was to stage the most innovative Games ever and show the whole world a new image of Russia. IOC president Thomas Bach confirmed at Sunday’s closing ceremony that “Russia delivered all what it had promised”.

The Olympic nation-branding operation

The Winter Games project was intended to reflect the unique identity of Russia, as well as the values of the Sochi 2014 brand and Sochi 2014’s innovative approach to the organisation and staging of the Games. The lead-up to the event was overshadowed by security fears, human rights concerns and delays to preparations. They did not go away entirely, but Russia had made its mark in Olympic history and worldwide.

SOCOG put on a spectacular show that embodied the Russian culture, history and people. This is the result of integrated projects and part of a wider nation branding operation: the Cultural Olympiad presented its cultural diversity; a spectacular torch relay showcased Russia to the world; the sophisticated opening and closing ceremonies celebrated the national culture and its heritage and the sports events reinforced the national pride.

The new generation of sporting champions led Russia to the top of the medal table. Russia is young, winning and proud, like its figure skater Lipnitskaya.

The Hot.Cool.Yours. Games captured the diversity of Russia’s identity. The President of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko, explained: “The Sochi 2014 slogan demonstrates that it is impossible not to participate, watch, experience and be proud because this is Your Games.”

A re-invention of PR for nation states

A team of 25,000 Games Makers supported the smooth running of 98 events in 15 winter sport disciplines held around the coastal and mountain clusters. Their multi-coloured uniforms were part of the nation branding. Volunteerism strengthens the idea that Russian society is cosmopolitan, warm and friendly. This creates a distance from the remote image of the Soviet-state or the cultural stereotype of balalaikas, valenky felt boots and matryoshkas.

Mayor of the Coastal Olympic Village, Yelena Isinbayeva, acted as figurehead for international athletes, politicians and visitors. She was a perfect ambassador for the nation’s image cultivation. The southern resort city of Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast seemed an extravagant choice for hosting the Winter Games. Yet the ‘Florida of Russia’ with a sub-tropical climate won over, despite the soft snow.

“The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of scepticism towards the new Russia,” insisted Deputy PM Dmitry Kozak. “The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”

The IOC President praised Sochi 2014 as the Athletes’ Games. Since London 2012, the Games are more than ever a social media experience. In our me-media age, Olympians act as PR advocates who pitch fans with their own stories shared on social media. The Olympic Athletes’ Hub delivered by the IOC recorded over 40,000 updates from Olympians, teams and National Olympic Committees.

The Olympics mark several milestones for Russia. This year the country hosted an Olympics for the first time since the boycott-affected Moscow Games of 1980. There is a strong cultural link between the two Russian Games and as explained by Moscow-correspondent Ellingworth, for many in the older generation, Sochi revived a moment of pride from their youth for the Soviet Union.

A wave of nostalgia swept over with the mascot Bely Mishka at the Closing Ceremony. It recalled the image of Misha the bear, Olympic mascot of Moscow 1980 which appeared with a tear in its eye during the closing ceremony. Misha was the first mascot of a sporting event to achieve large-scale commercial success in merchandise. While the popular Sochi polar bear was seen as an alter-ego of the Russian President; Putin’s omnipresence was part of his soft white-wash operation.

Disasters averted

The twitter storm caused by #sochiproblems buzzed with excitement as the audience waited for the show to start. The Moscow correspondent for BBC News Steve Rosenberg shared via twitter the bizarre photo of twin toilets from the biathlon center. Unfortunately it became a memorable photo of this games, a symbol of financial waste. The @SochiProblems hub ironically peppered the conversations around Sochi 2014. The embarassments created a viral content marketing story; yet its effect was to make the games more friendly.

Even the disastrous image of the Olympic rings malfunctioning at the opening ceremony was echoed in style by the hosts at closing ceremony: Sochi 2014 organisers showed a welcome willingness to laugh at themselves. Marco Balich, the Italian artistic executive producer of the ceremony reinvented the embarassing technical hitch with a joke.

A politicised country promotion

Ideally the spirit of the Games events should not be marred by politics, protests and crises. The show must go on. The International Olympic Committee is the supreme authority of the Olympic Movement, and ensured the celebration of the Sochi Games despite the protests, political influence and alarming news from Ukraine.

Every Olympics has protests, but Russia has faced a global backlash due to human rights concerns. Over 60 foreign political leaders attended the Opening Ceremony, but many such as Obama, Cameron and Merkel did not turn up. The rainbow uniforms of the German team were both a celebration of the 1972 Olympics, and a silent protest. More than 200 writers from around the world signed an open letter published in The Guardian, calling for the right of free expression in Russia.

The internet giant displayed a Google Doodle depicting athletes against a rainbow-coloured backdrop, along with a section of the Olympic charter about the practice of sport as human right.

The gold medal for the women’s team biathlon showed that Ukraine is united through sport. Yet the IOC banned Ukrainian competitors from wearing black armbands to commemorate the deaths of protesters in Kiev.

Russia had so much to prove at the costliest Olympic Games in history. The Games brought international PR activities, top sponsors and partners, including Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Visa and Samsung. This led the positioning of Russia as a rising leader: a rich cosmopolitan country with a glorious past and a bright future.

This modern European country that connects East and West is also a tourist destination, and the host of the coming 40th G8 summit in Sochi and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. A result that is a further part of the legacy of Sochi 2014.