In the first of our two-part series on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Daria Sukharchuk examines the Russian media’s perception in the run-up to the most expensive Winter Games in history.
The biggest news one week before the Olympics in the Russian media was a number: 0% of Russians were planning to go to Sochi to see the games. Although this number obviously contrasts with the fact that most of the fans in the Olympics are from Russia, it reflects, in a certain way, the general pessimistic atmosphere that surrounded Sochi Olympics before the opening. Many months before the start of the games the most frequent reports were of it’s cost and the low quality of construction ‒ coupled with rumours of the wild corruption surrounding it.
Ten days after Russian President Vladimir Putin officially denied “any big corruption issues in Sochi”, the Anti-Corruption Foundation ‒ a public initiative led by Russia’s most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navanly, released a website dedicated to the issue ‒ “Corruption Race”. The first page, featuring pictures of Russia’s five most prominent politicians and businessmen in the Olympic rings (Putin in the centre) invites the reader to look at “the most distinguished money-siphoners in five different sports: classic embezzlement, verbal freestyle, ecological multi-sport, pair’s contracting and skating the figures”. In the tone of bitter sarcasm, characteristic for Navalny, it tells biographies of the “champions” and stories of money-siphoning, ecological disasters and false promises surrounding Sochi.
State-owned broadcasters ‒ such as the news agency RIA ‒ focused on reporting Olympic venues building progress. While the Russian Gazette, the main mouthpiece of the government, published a very optimistic report from the government meeting, quoting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev: “in terms of results, everything works”.
The article also emphasised the fact that “the audit carried out by the Accounts Chamber of Russian Federation has not revealed any improper use of funds” ‒ a statement hardly any Russian can ever believe.
The Russian Reporter — a rather popular weekly magazine mostly focusing on human interest stories ‒ published a special issue dedicated to Sochi in November 2013. The issue featured, among others, an article called “A Parable of Russia” that gives a very detailed description of all the ambitious construction projects that have changed Sochi so much: not only the new sports venues, but 365 km of new roads, new high-speed railway, the international airport and hundreds of meters of pipelines. The article compares Sochi construction works to major infrastructure projects of the 1930’s and especially emphasises the many challenges the construction workers had to face: for example the storms in the summer and a large flood in September 2013 — all of which were ignored by state-owned broadcasters — however, the end of the story is glum:
“The Olympics have given job not only to construction workers in Sochi, but […] to contractors from all around the country […]. Of course, many people have got some cuts. But still, the companies have got orders, workers have got work […]. But if our country stagnates again, this regional project would be more about more about vanity than regional development”.
Probably, the most positive stories before the Olympics were those about volunteers: several media outlets published articles about volunteers. Regardless of the media outlets’ political orientation, the overall tone of those articles was rather similar: they emphasized the youth of Sochi volunteers (88% of them are younger than 30) and their optimistic attitude towards the Olympics.
Almost all of such articles included a small interview with a volunteer talking about “the opportunity to improve my English and to make friends from all over the country” their eagerness to make a good impression on the foreigners coming to the Olympics.
Finally, the night before the Olympic opening ceremony, “Kommersant”, a newspaper known for it’s critical attitude towards modern day Russia, published on it’s website an article named “The Olympics are loading… please, wait” — a first impression from the Kommersant team that has arrived to cover the games. It opens with a paragraph:
“Today, it is impossible to ignore the Olympics if you are in Sochi. It is a city of names. To get a bus to the Olympic park, one needs to walk 50 minutes on Figurnaya (Figure) street, and, before crossing the Champions avenue turn into the Triumfalnaya (Triumph) street. The signs one sees on the way can predict Russian team’s chances to win the Olympics. I think of our hockey team when I see the “50-50” cafe, […] and of someone else when I see the infamous “Stumbler” bar in Adler (but let us not think of those painful matters).”
The article then goes on describing how the Olympics that have not yet started have changed the life of Sochi, and quotes several Canadian and American journalists that have arrived to cover the games. They appear to be cheerful and ironic at the same time, reassured that no major terrorist attacks or broken toilets would spoil the games.
This last piece reflects the general feeling of middle-class Russians about the Olympics before they started: the overall attitude was critical, and many flaws can’t be ignored. The expectations were low, and hardly any Russian trusted the government’s statements denying corruption in Sochi.