Sochi, Russia 25th February 2014 – President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Monday that Russia had taken a risk in hosting the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi but insisted the country pulled off the feat of showing a new face to the world.
After a build-up dogged by concerns over Russia’s human rights record and an alarming race against the clock to finish construction on time, the Games themselves won gushing praise from the International Olympic Committee.
The event wound up on Sunday with a beautifully pitched closing ceremony and Russia sitting pretty on top of the medals table with 13 golds.
“We all took a risk, not just the Russian side but also our friends from the IOC,” said Putin.
“They also took a risk, they believed in us and took certain risks on to themselves.”
Putin said one of the main aims of the Games was to show off to the world “the renewed, multi-faceted and open” face of post-Soviet Russia, a country he has run since 2000.
The IOC granted Russia the right to host the Games at a session in 2007 where Putin made an emotional plea for the Olympics, in a speech in heavily accented English.
He said there was no certainty to what extent the huge preparatory work that had been done for the Olympics would succeed.
“But nonetheless, people believed in us and took the risk,” Putin told a meeting attended by IOC president Thomas Bach and committee members.
“We have (in Russian) a great expression ‘if you don’t take a risk then you don’t drink the champagne.’ So today we can raise a glass to our joint result.”
– ‘Battle for sporting power’ –
Putin said the Games had marked a huge turnaround for Russia’s sporting fortunes after the debacle of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, where it picked up just three gold medals.
“The results show that the difficult period in the history of Russia sport is over,” Putin said at a meeting with medal-winning Russian athletes in Sochi.
“Everything that was done and invested in our sport has not been in vain,” he added.
“The Russian team made unexpected, but all the more pleasant, breakthroughs.”
He hailed each gold medal winner by name, including the young figure skaters Yulia Lipnitskaia, 15, and Adelina Sotnikova, 17, who became instant national heroes with their victories.
Putin made clear that he thought the Olympics were about far more than the traditional slogan that it is the taking part that counts.
“Here is fought out a battle to be a sporting power. To be among the leaders is a matter of national prestige,” he said.
– Activists under pressure –
At the closing ceremony Sunday, Bach congratulated Russia for delivering “all what it had promised” in hosting the Sochi Games and thanked Putin for his role ensuring their “extraordinary success”.
However, activists have argued that the Games were shadowed by repeated rights abuses during their preparation and execution, warning that the situation will only worsen now the world’s spotlight is leaving Sochi.
The Russian authorities transferred a leading critic of the environmental cost of the Olympics, Yevgeny Vitishko, to a penal colony after ordering him to serve a three-year prison term, his group said Monday.
The IOC has said that the Vitishko case “is not Games-related”. His conviction relates to a vandalism conviction dating back to 2012.
Vitishko’s Ecological Watch on the Northern Caucasus (EWNC) group meanwhile said two of its activists, Olga Noskovets and David Hakim, were arrested in Sochi on Sunday, the day of the closing ceremony.
It said they had spent the night in police detention and that it expected them to be ordered to serve 15 days of administrative detention.