Once upon a time, the Olympic medal table was dominated by Soviet athletes. Team USSR came first in gold medals in six of the nine summer Olympics they participated in between 1952 and 1988 (and second in the other three). They did even better at the Winter Olympics, coming first in all but two games.
In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (the first games held in Russia since the end of the Cold War) billions have been invested in reconstructing the system that churned out champion athletes like sausages. Just as the Beijing Olympics in 2008 heralded the emergence of a more confident China onto the global stage, will the Sochi Olympics be interpreted as a sign of Russia’s rise? Clearly, President Vladimir Putin wants to ensure these Olympics deliver plenty of national prestige; Russia has spent more than $50 billion on the Sochi games, which is more than was spent on all the previous Winter Olympics put together.
Yet not all of the international attention focused on Russia has been positive. Most recently, the issue of gay rights has been in the headlines following the introduction by the Russian government of a ban on “homosexual propaganda“. The ban has drawn widespread criticism not just from Western media, but also from athletes competing in the games. In return, the Russian government has accused the EU of infringing human rights by “aggressively promoting homosexuality”.
European leaders have also criticised Russia for what they see as putting undue pressure on Ukraine not to sign a far-reaching Association Agreement with the EU late last year (a decision which led directly to the ongoing anti-government protests that have gripped Kiev and other parts of the country). The dispute has cooled relations between the EU and Russia, and led to a frosty summit in Brussels in which Putin warned the EU not to interfere in Ukraine.
Will the Sochi Olympics project an image of Russia as an emergent global power in the same way the Beijing Olympics did for China? And should Europe be concerned by its seemingly more aggressive and self-confident neighbor? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy makers and experts for their reactions.