Photo: RIA NOVOSTI
Today should have been one of the best days of Vladimir Putin’s life. Russia
was meant to win gold in the ice hockey, by far the most important sport in
the Winter Olympics as far as the host president is concerned.
He plays it for fun with his friends, and numbers among them the star of the
team, Alexander Ovechkin, who joked in advance that staging the most
expensive Games of all time – winter or summer – was really all about
winning this one medal: “The gold only cost $50 billion.”
That was only half a joke. Winning gold in the ice hockey would have been of
great symbolic importance to the president in his drive to return Russia to
its historic position as a major player on the world stage.
Soviet teams used to dominate the sport, which is why the USA’s surprise
victory at the height of the Cold War in 1980 was billed as the Miracle on
But Russia is not going to win the gold in Sochi in 2014. There will be no
crowning glory for Mr Putin before today’s closing ceremony. The team
crashed out 3-1 to Finland.
The defeat was described by the daily newspaper Sovietsky Sport – once the
house sporting journal of the USSR – as “shameful for a world power”. The
coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov told the Russian media he knew what was in
store for him now. “You’ll eat me and I’ll be gone.”
So without that golden moment, the question has to be asked: was it all worth
it? Russia is believed to have spent in excess of £30billion on Sochi 2014.
That is as much as all the previous Winter Olympics put together. Has Mr
Putin got what he wanted?
And closer to home, what about the money Britain has spent on competing? That
amounts to £14 million over four years, more than double the cost of last
time. Has it been worth it for us?
Such sums are trifling to Mr Putin, of course, but even he has complained
about the spiralling bill for hosting the Games. Some of the expenses are
perfectly understandable. The venues had to be built from scratch, and many
of them are world-class.
The 37,000 troops and police officers on duty have to be paid for, as do the
surface-to-air missiles and the “ring of steel” security border that
stretches 60 miles along the coast and 25 miles inland. It has done its job,
up to now. Terrorist attacks were a major worry before the Games. The threat
is still severe. This is Patriot’s Day for Russians, a prime moment for the
sort of terrorists who set off suicide bombs in Volgograd in December.
Mr Putin is a former KGB man, of course. If there is one thing he must pride
himself on, it is security. So far, then, so good. He is unlikely to mind
that the security forces came across as heavy-handed for detaining then
beating up two members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot. They were
attacked with whips and tear gas by uniformed Cossacks as they stood under
the Olympic rings singing Putin Will Teach You To Love The Motherland. The
song is not nearly as loyal as it sounds.
The regional governor has promised to investigate the behaviour of the
Cossacks, but there may not be much pressure on him from the Kremlin.
President Putin wants to come across as strong, to put it mildly. This is a
man who likes to ride horses topless and pose with a hunting rifle.
He is also seeking to return Russia to its place as an ideological force in
the world, according to the historian and commentator Owen Matthews, author
of Stalin’s Children.
This time, however, he wants it to be as “a champion of conservative values”.
Mr Matthews says Russia is seeking support for this project from countries
in the Middle East and Africa, but has even found it among members of the
religious Right in America.
“Putin’s new mission goes deeper than political opportunism,” writes Mr
Matthews in The Spectator. “Like the old Communist International, or
Comintern, in its day, Moscow is again building an international ideological
He points out that Mr Putin promised, in a state-of-the-nation speech in
December, that Russia would “defend traditional values that have made up the
spiritual and moral foundations of civilisation in every nation for
thousands of years”.
The Games gave him the perfect opportunity to state his case by standing up to
those who protested about Russia’s treatment of gay people, which is often
brutal. Beatings and murders are often ignored by the police. Last year a
law was passed banning the passing on of information about homosexuality to
anyone under the age of 18. Mr Putin refers to it as “a ban on the
propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia” and routinely conflates the
Gay workers and athletes would still be welcome in Sochi, the president
insisted. “We haven’t banned anything and no one is being grabbed off the
street unlike in some countries,” he said, despite reports that this was
exactly what vigilantes were doing. “So you will feel quite secure, at ease,
but leave kids alone, please.”
Athletes and broadcasters came under pressure to boycott the Games, including
the BBC presenter Clare Balding, who is openly gay. But she said: “I think
the best way of enlightening societies that are not as open-minded as our
own is not to be cowed into submission.”
The issue has not gone away, but it has been pushed into the background – for
better or worse – by the sheer spectacle of the Games. Bernie Ecclestone,
the chief executive of Formula One, has offered his support to Mr Putin over
the last few days, but then he is hoping to hold a race in Sochi.
The Black Sea resort is a favourite of the president, who is said to be
building an expensive retreat for himself there. If it was part of his
project to surround his holiday home with a dazzling infrastructure, he has
succeeded. His journey from the seaside to the mountains 30 miles away will
be much easier now £5 billion has been spent on a road and railway linking
the beaches of Adler with the ski slopes of Krasnaya Polyana.
The opposition party leader, Boris Nemtsov, has pointed out that this cost
more than the Americans were willing to spend to put the Curiosity Rover on
Mars. He said the road “might as well have been paved with platinum or
Mr Nemtsov was the co-author of a report into the cost of the Winter Olympics
that says that up to £19 billion has gone missing in “a monstrous scam”.
However, he also says that most of the work has been done by firms owned by
the government or run by Mr Putin’s friends. In that case, the corruption
seems unlikely to trouble the President much.
The trouble in Ukraine, on the other hand, will be of great concern. Like many
Russians, Mr Putin sees Ukraine as integral to his country’s history and its
The Ukraine Olympic Association was reportedly denied permission for its
athletes to wear black armbands to “mark the deep pain over the loss of
fellow countrymen” – although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says
it was the Ukrainians themselves who chose not to go ahead.
Some athletes went home early. Others hung a national flag with mourning bands
in the Olympic village. A spokesman for the IOC was quoted as saying: “The
overall, general idea is that we try to concentrate on the sport.”
The Olympic movement likes to consider itself bigger than politics. However,
in this case, there is every reason to believe that the President of the
Russian Federation will believe the Games have furthered his political aims
They have been secure, spectacular and a perfect platform on which to strike a
pose as a strong man defending his own particular version of traditional
Russia has hosted an Olympic event for the first time since the heady days of
1980, and even more successfully. And if his mates have made a few bob along
the way, why should he worry?
Shame about the ice hockey, though. And as of yesterday, Russia was second in
the medal table behind that renowned world superpower Norway. No, don’t
laugh. The president would not like it, and you know how he gets.
So, what about Britain? The £14 million provided by the Government and the
National Lottery might not pay for a set of traffic lights on Mr Putin’s new
super-highway but it is a significant amount in these cash-strapped times.
Have we had value for money?
You’d have to say “yes”. The target was to win at least three medals, and so
far we have four, with the men’s four-man bobsleigh team providing the last
chance if they reach the final today.
This is our biggest medal haul in the Winter Olympics since the first in
Chamonix in 1924, when we had the advantage of sending the biggest team.
This time, Team GB took fewer people than the BBC – but then all the funding
had been spent on the six sports that gave us the best chance of a medal:
bobsleigh, curling, figure skating, short track speed skating, skeleton and
ski and snowboard events.
Jenny Jones delivered on the second day, hurtling down the mountain, leaping
from terrifying slopes and performing miraculous tricks at the same time as
soaring through the air, to win bronze in the snowboarding slopestyle.
She was beside herself with joy when she saw the medal positions yelling:
“It’s ridiculous! That’s me! From Bristol!” Giggles turned to tears when her
parents revealed they had secretly been there to see it.
Her tears were shared by team-mate Aimee Fuller in the BBC commentary box, who
had made the mistake of cheering when her rivals fell. There were hundreds
of complaints about that and the excitable commentators Ed Leigh and Tim
Warwood, who were condemned by some as “hysterical idiots”.
But they were often actually the perfect accompaniment to the glorious madness
of snowboarding – laughing, joking and shouting at the sheer joy of the
sport. David Coleman could not have bettered the surreal line: “Riding
switch is like writing left-handed while wearing a chip hat and being
attacked by seagulls.”
Snowboarding made us smile, hide behind our fingers with fear at what might
happen then go, “Blimey, did you see that?” You can’t ask for much more from
televised sport. Leigh and Warwood were also a useful contrast to the calm,
controlled Clare Balding, who once more proved herself to be the best anchor
in the business.
Lizzy Yarnold won gold in the skeleton by lying on a carbon-fibre tray called
Mervyn and hurtling down a track with her nose only inches from the ice.
She’s now heading for a guest appearance on The Archers, and fans have
already painted a postbox gold in her home village in Kent. That’s the way
we honour our heroes in this country, not with a dacha.
The English, Irish and Welsh fell in love with curling all over again, as we
have every four years since the women won gold in 2002. The Scots already
love it, they invented the sport and supply the granite for all the stones
from the little island of Ailsa Craig.
The British captain, David Murdoch, produced a shot that even an idiot could
see was miraculous to beat Norway in the semi-final. Team GB were blown away
by a bunch of brash Canadians in the final, but silver was a wonderful
result. So was the bronze won by the women after a thrilling match.
In the speed skating, Elise Christie had the worst possible Olympics. She was
disqualified three times, two of which decisions looked highly dubious to
this totally unbiased, patriotic flag-waving British observer. She was
abused by South Korean trolls on Twitter and taken out in her last race by a
Chinese rival. Honestly, it would never happen to a Russian.
The bobsleigh team have a chance today, and that’s the last of the six sports
we were concentrating on. All those endless reruns of Eddie the Eagle
ski-jumping in Calgary in 1988 are a reminder of how far we have come. He
broke the British record in coming last, but back then there was no
expectation that anyone from this country could ever win anything on ice or
We now send athletes who routinely finish in the top 10, and the luckiest and
most gifted win medals. From the grin of Jenny Jones to the furrowed brow of
David Murdoch, the British have boosted national pride and proved a glorious
point. And unlike President Putin, we haven’t had to break the bank to do
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