— Viktor Shenderovich (1958–)
I’ve been interested in the Olympics for as long as I can remember. I have a couple stronger Olympic memories than others. Obviously, the winter games in Salt Lake City stick out. Unfortunately, they kind of stick out for the wrong reason. I got to pick up trash as a volunteer. I had friends who were interpreters and other more involved positions. I know one friend of mine went skiing on the downhill course with the Uzbek skiers. I was at the same venue, but at a different time, and doing a much different job. Ultimately, I mostly enjoyed my experience volunteering for the Olympics, but it was certainly not what I had hoped for and not what I had been told to expect. Much earlier in life, when I was four years old, I remember watching the Olympics on my parents’ old black-and-white TV. It was a 12” model (at best) with rabbit ears. We had it in a corner in the living room on a little stand by the bookshelves. I remember seeing some ice skating from the competitions in Sarajevo. Among other early Olympic memories, I remember sitting in our gray chair with my leg immobile because of a huge scab on my knee after a massive bike wreck that happened when I thought a car ramp would make a good bike jump. I am also quite interested in Russia, having served there as a missionary and lived there more recently for work.
Putin’s Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia (ISBN: 978-1-315-81728-6) is a book by Robert W. Orttung and Sufian N. Zhemukhov that brings both of those interests together. It takes a deeper look than the usual press on the subject at the Sochi Olympics and their greater context in Russia’s domestic and international politics. The book looks at the problems surrounding the hosting of the Olympics in Sochi, which included corruption, a marginalization of civil society, problematic international relations, and the relation of security during the Olympics and its connection to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The viewpoint of the book was from that of the Olympics being something the authors defined as a “mega-project” and how Russia’s rulers, especially President Putin, tried to use that to their own advantages, both personally and to bring Russia’s standing up on the international stage. The authors come to what I consider mixed conclusions, noting that the Sochi games were secure, did result in much-needed infrastructure upgrades in Sochi, and, from Putin’s standpoint, his position was secured because Russians saw the Olympics as a positive for their country, although, as the Shenderovich quote above notes, this is not necessarily a good thing. On the other hand, the successes came at a great price, both monetarily and in prestige internationally, where Russia was hurt by the scandals surrounding the games.
The book was, of course, interesting. It was interesting to see some analysis of the Olympics in their political context, and they’ve most often had a political context, no matter the average fan’s desire to separate sport from politics. The most explosive conclusion in the book was the connection between Sochi and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The other stuff wasn’t really new for me, but that line of reasoning was new and fascinating and, really, rather hard to refute. I was a little disappointed in the book because of its style. It seemed to be long on background explanations, but then short on analysis by the authors. That could’ve been because most of these conclusions have already been drawn in the media and there wasn’t really that much new ground to cover other than from a more standardized, academic approach, but it seemed to me to lack some punch in the sections other than the Ukraine conclusion. Also, although a very small part of the book, I was disappointed that the book took the usual Western line of automatic support of the protest group P--sy Riot and automatic dismissal of Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda law. A more nuanced view than that of social media is something I would expect from an academic treatment of Russian domestic policy and its international context. A relatively short book, it was interesting and presented some interesting, new ideas, and was worth the look.
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