Sochi: the chilling winter games

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Amnesty International’s ballerina protest
Amnesty International’s ballerina protest

This is an article by Miriam Pelusi.   

The Winter Olympics are yet to start in Sochi, but concerns over freedom of expression, corruption and security have already cast a long shadow over the games.

The Kremlin’s anti-gay measures are seen by some as homophobic acts against human rights. Amnesty International has launched a global petition with a “one-person protest” of a professional ballerina in central Moscow.

Amnesty International’s Ballet protest
Amnesty International’s ballerina protest

The most expensive winter games so far cost around £31bn. The budget is five times bigger than initially anticipated: a rise already blamed on bribery. Finally, the recent bombings in Volgograd set off concerns over security. Terrorism is a global threat, but the organisers are reiterating that security was given paramount importance in the preparations for the games.

Will Sochi 2014 help forge a new image for the host country, despite these negatives? If not, the Russian Fairy Tale in Sochi will be a chilling loss on the PR front.

Sport events: a major PR investment for the BRICs

The World Cup and the Winter Olympics are a major economic and PR investment for the rising economies of two of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China plus South Africa). In this current decade, the major global sports events are being hosted by BRIC countries: the Summer Games 2008 Beijing in China; the 2010 Fifa WorldCup in South Africa; Winter Games Sochi 2014 in Russia; 2014 Fifa World Cup and Summer Games Rio 2016 in Brazil; 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Those mega-events showcase the BRICs’ power and boost their image in the eyes of the world. The BRICs are all member countries in the G-20; on a global scale, the perceptions towards those giants have changed in the new century. Hosting memorable World Cups and Olympic Games could facilitate the interaction and reciprocal influence of the BRICs with the rest of the world.

Sport used as political instrument

There is a profound connection between sport and geopolitics in Russia, a country that has used sport as a government instrument.

In the Soviet Union under Stalin, great importance was given to the cult of the body. It was nearly fanaticism. However, this was a common trait in totalitarian regimes in the last century. During the Communist dictatorship, sport had a didactic purpose. At Moscow 1980, the Olympic Games were a grand showcase for the Stalinist sporting practices that had emerged in the 1930s.

For many, sport is still used as a propaganda vehicle. The Winter Olympics are an instrument of power for Putin, the President of Russia. To calm the recent debate, during a meeting with some of the thousands of volunteers, Putin said that gay people will not be subjected to harassment at the Winter Olympics in Sochi as long as they stay away from children. But his comment magnified the debate and the controversy continues to damage Sochi 2014 and the Olympic movement.

The Russian Olympic brand

James Ellingworth, a Moscow-based sports correspondent for RIA Novosti/R-Sport, explained his analysis that “the Winter Games are not just a display of Russia’s rise to foreigners, but a force shaping the country’s idea of itself.”

Sochi 2014 is a great positive story for Russia, an opportunity to improve the image of Russia worldwide.

The Olympics are always a mega PR operation: it is a fine example of reputation management. The effort is to make Russia visible on the world map and get the right message across to the world. The old Russia is for the first time shown as a young, modern country.

The Russian Federation comprisess one eighth of the surface of the earth, but is still scarcely unknown. Its beauty and culture are not widely publicised. Making other learn about Russian culture is one of the goals of the Sochi 2014 project.

In Russia events management is not yet a discipline.

The Sochi 2014 volunteering programme took as its model the ‘Games Makers’ programme from London 2012. As James Ellingworth explained, Sochi 2014 is also changing Russian culture. Volunteering is not seen anymore as a ‘community service’, as happened in the Soviet era. The Games have created the idea of a volunteer movement, and they show a different way of engaging citizens in common projects and shared values.

The Torch Relay Show: a spectacular PR boomerang?

The Olympic flame brings warm friendship to all the people of the world through sharing a global togetherness. Putin started the longest torch relay in Olympic history: a 40,000-mile route that passes through all 83 regions of the vast country of Russia, from Kaliningrad in the west to Chukotka in the east. The torch was even taken on a historic spacewalk by Russian cosmonauts.

The transfer of the Olympic flame showcased Russia around the world and promoted its global image. The torch relay may be a moment of national pride, but it’s also a tourism opportunity for the host country.

Thanks to the relay, spectators across the world were able to gain an impression of the history and culture of Russia, to appreciate the immensity of this area and the diversity of the people living in Russia and to see the achievements of the country and its citizens. Not by chance, Coca-Cola is the unique worldwide top partner of this exorbitant spectacle.

The run-up to the Games has already been marred by controversy over costs. The financial waste could become a PR boomerang in terms of reputation, and for many, it is a mark of the controversies of the Putin era: mere propaganda.

A spectator experience

The ultra-modern sports venues and new world and Olympic records are usually what make a games memorable. Sochi 2014 seems to put the spectators at the centre: the official website states that “The most important aspects in Sochi will be the spectators”. It reverses the idea from London 2012 where the sporting heroes inspired the spectators. At Sochi 2014, the spectators inspire the athletes to do their best.

It’s a sign of the marketing tendency of our times: putting the consumers at the centre. Sports events are “products” to be bought and consumed by spectators. Tickets are an important revenue for a mega-event, and the organisers and partners of a mega-event must provide the public with the best spectator experience ever.