Sochi 2014: ‘Glasnost’ – Russia sheds stony-faced image for smiles and wit

Sochi 2014: Russia's first Winter Games went a long way to ridding the country of its backward and unfriendly image, but at what cost?

The story of a wealthy Russian woman in a full-length fur coat ignoring the person behind her, who was struggling to open a heavy department store’s door while laden with several bags, is how many people might have viewed the 2014 Winter Olympics hosts a few weeks ago.

“Who do you think I am? A doorman?” was the haughty female’s reply, when asked why she had not held the door open for the poor woman.

This happened in the 2000s and it has taken Russia a long while, since the breakup of the old Soviet Union a decade earlier, to convince the world it is a modern nation with a modern outlook. Even before the Olympics there was outcry at their backward views on gays.

“It’s not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live. We do not have them in our city,” said the mayor of Sochi Anatoly Pakhomov.

But cast all that aside, as the young performers did at yesterday’s stunning closing ceremony from their lofty boat: Russia’s first Winter Olympics have left an indelible mark.

Wherever you looked there were smiling faces. From fans, media, athletes on the ground in Sochi, the reports were all the same: this is a friendly nation, with friendly people.

Yes the Olympics can distort reality somewhat, yes organisers are highly unlikely to employ a volunteer who wouldn’t smile even if they’d won the lottery, but Russia has still gone a long way to proving itself. And you can forget the stony-faced looks, they even have a sense of humour.

The said blunder was of course the failure of one of the five Olympic rings to open, seen here.

Beneath the smiles and good will as Russians woke up today in their post-Sochi haze, remains the fact that the country’s economy is in decline. GDP growth fell from 3.4% in 2012 to 1.3% last year and the economy ministry has said growth would fall below the world average for the next 16 years.

Rail transport accounts for 85% of the country’s freight turnover and yet there are too few wagons. The ones they do possess are ageing and an estimated $25bn needs to be invested over the next 10 years to replace them, half the reported cost of the most expensive Games on record.

On the flip-side, southern Russian regions have benefited from the Sochi Games and will continue to do so, helping to break the Moscow and St Petersburg-led trade hegemony.

But most importantly of all, the Cold War image of Russia may have been left behind forever. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had a vision with his ‘glasnost’ (openness) policy of the 1980s, which might just be catching on 30 years later.

Not only have Russians achieved a lot for themselves, they have also got people talking about the Olympic movement in glowing terms and there will be one heck of a fight to secure the vacant 2022 Winter Games slot.

Twice the number of candidate cities put themselves forward last November and the six in line have until March 14 to submit their applications before the International Olympic Committee select the candidate cities in July. A year later we will know the hosts.

Norway (Oslo) will be a strong contender given their pedigree and second-placed showing in Sochi despite having a much smaller population than first-placed Russia, Canada and USA, as will Stockholm given Sweden have never hosted a Winter Games.

Kazahstan, China, Ukraine and Poland have also thrown their hats into the ring to follow South Korea’s PyeongChang in 2018.

The next Winter Olympics cannot come quickly enough. And the next ones. And the ones after that.

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