Winter Olympics and the Vladimir Putin factor

Over recent weeks at IBWM, we've looked at Russia's bid for the 2018 World Cup.  Despite consistent negative messages in the Western media, Russia will pull out all the stops for this one.  Domm Norris draws comparisons with the Winter Olympics.

There may be little correlation between football and the Winter Olympic Games in a sporting sense, but for Russia, and the nation's President Vladimir Putin, the two have become increasingly closely aligned.

The Winter Olympics in 2014 are due to be held in the resort city of Sochi, which is located in the south westerly region of Krasnodar Krai, and will be placed under a huge amount of scrutiny during its two week stint at the forefront of global sport. However, in the case of the Winter Olympics, does the push for sporting infrastructural prowess come at a social, geographic and economic cost?

The significance of Sochi being chosen as the host city of the Winter Olympics can be seen in the fact that the city cannot claim to have any sporting infrastructure that would be ready for immediate use. This, in itself, shows how the Russian government is willing and able to provide overwhelming levels of support quickly in order to bring the nation through as a front-runner of global sport. A staggering $12 billion has been designated by the government and private sector for the games in Sochi that will in turn transform the face of a city, which has been viewed as a mere tourist hotspot for decades, while providing a focal point for the Krasnodar Krai region. However, the heavy investment that the area is witnessing is coming at a cost that threatens to destabilise and make the Sochi Winter Olympics a highly contentious competition that could, in turn, become a template for any potential World Cup on Russian soil.

The organising committee of the Sochi games had permitted the construction of various facilities upon 'buffer land' of the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve and Sochi National Park, areas that are protected as world heritage sites. Until the intervention of Vladimir Putin, the development of the Athlete's Village and bobsled track would have backed directly onto the reserves and could have potentially opened up the surrounding area to future infrastructural developments that could have severely damaged the surrounding, protected areas. The power and influence of Vladimir Putin may well have subsided worries in regards to the destruction of the Russian landscape, however concerns have also been raised with regard to the stability of the area surrounding the Olympic Stadium and the other key areas of the games. Dr Sergei Volkov, who formerly worked as a consultant to the Sochi games, has issued warnings to the Russian government that the land which is being developed for use is potentially dangerous, and even life threatening.

"Not a particularly strong storm destroyed this important infrastructure project... At least $14m [of work] was washed away by the sea, to say nothing of the lives of [three] seamen... And this serious catastrophe with the loss of human life is just the start of similar accidents which will follow."

Volkov's claims, in the wake of the destruction of a cargo port being built in preparation for the games, have created a ripple effect of questioning the idea that the government pushed to hold the games before considering the consequences of doing so. It also begs the question as to whether the government can be said to be doing a similar thing in their bid to bring the World Cup to Russia, especially when one considers that the global economic climate is presently volatile at best.

The potential for the World Cup to revolutionise a significant portion of the western reaches of the nation cannot be doubted, as regeneration will reach beyond a single city as is the case with the Winter Olympics, but can the nation continue to put such significant investment into sport? It is likely that the role of the private sector, including vast sums of Russian oil money, will help to ensure that the World Cup, as well as Sochi 2014, is presented successfully without the need for concerns about the security of infrastructure.

The level of government support is a key link between the Winter Olympics and the World Cup. The extreme levels of investment that have been designated to Sochi 2014 show that the government views sport as a hugely important facet of a nation's progression. Throwing $12 billion into the development and transformation of a city, which if left to expand organically could take several decades, is a giant statement of intent on behalf of the Russian nation. The World Cup has been promised funds that make Sochi’s development appear to be a minuscule figure and such investment could well see the rapid evolution of various other developing metropolitan areas. The controversies that have often threatened to stifle the development of Sochi could well rear their head once more if the government, FIFA and the Russian World Cup Committee attempt to generate infrastructure in particularly sensitive areas, whether that be in National Park areas or at the expense of people's livelihoods, as hundreds of people in Sochi have lost houses, businesses and land as the city prepares for the Winter Olympics.

Vladimir Putin's admission that he will travel to Zurich in December, when the host of the 2018 World Cup will be announced, is a potentially enormous boost for the Russian's bid. The President made a similar pledge during the bidding process for the Winter Olympics as he travelled to Guatemala City in order to lobby the judges into honouring Sochi as the host city of the 2014 games, and the rest, as they say, is history. The weight of Putin's power and influence is likely to provide a strong, positive message, which could well help sway the direction of the final ballot. If Putin, once again, experiences the joy of yet another sporting victory, with political overtones, then he must ensure that the Winter Olympics in Sochi become an unquestionable success and are used as a blueprint for hosting the nation's next major sporting event.

Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent excellent football ramblings.