Despite continuing tensions over developments in Ukraine, the legacy of the Sochi Games should be the change in mentality, the celebration of culture and the efforts of the Russian people – writes Kelsey Guyette
In the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Western media was saturated with reports detailing the widespread corruption, emerging security threats from across the southern secessionist regions and unsavory housing conditions in the Olympic Park. Many of these stories were sensationalised and often depicted everyday realities of living in Russia. Though the Olympics were being held on the world stage, it did not make them exempt from some of Russia’s worst habits.
In its 2005 bid for the Winter Games, the Russian Federation outlined its hopeful legacy for the Sochi Olympics including new achievements in energy, transportation, tourism and sport infrastructure as well as advancements in sports education, inclusiveness, volunteerism and environmental protection. Unfortunately, many of these lofty goals were buried beneath the country’s political and organisational controversies while others were later overshadowed by the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. But at the same time, there was a frustrating disconnect between the broader international narrative and some of the true successes of ordinary Russians in preparing the country for the Games.
As an Olympic volunteer, I got to see a side of the Sochi Olympics that did not make the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Of course, there were hiccups. I witnessed communication breakdowns and struggled through logistical labyrinths. But on the ground, a palpable change was visible over the 18 days of competition. What really stuck with me was that many Russians were making a determined effort to change their ingrained behaviour and open themselves and their culture to the international community.
With a median age of 25 and wearing garish uniforms, over 20,000 people from across Russia and nearly 3,000 foreigners converged on Sochi as the Olympic volunteer team. On my first day alone I met people from Izhevsk, Rostov, Moscow and Vladimir; the closest of which is nine hours by train from Sochi. Throughout our training, we were instructed to greet every guest with a smile and to always be ready to answer questions, as part of a genuine attempt at overturning the common impression of Russians as stoic, unfriendly people who reserve emotion for close friends and family.
Having previously lived in Russia, I was taken aback by the comparative openness of many young Russians who — like me — had volunteered their time and energies to present Russia to the world. The volunteers became the new face of Russia to those on the ground and I watched this happen.
Every day as I entered the Olympic Park, a volunteer standing outside the security checkpoint would wave to me and wish me a good morning. The security guards, who were Russian police from across the country, would also smile and say hello to each of us in line. I got high-fives and hugs from new acquaintances. In a country where volunteerism wasn’t even part of the vocabulary, Russia’s younger generation left a lasting impact on the Olympics’ attendees and further depicted the widening generational gap that should instil hope for Russia’s future.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, captured some of the interpersonal and cultural transformations that I witnessed first-hand in his closing remarks. “You, volunteers with your warm smile made the sun shine for us every day – your wonderful engagement will create the legacy of a strong civil society in Russia,” he said. “Through you everybody with an open mind could see the face of a new Russia: efficient and friendly, patriotic and open to the world.”
This shift toward openness was amplified in the Games’ closing ceremony. Russia’s ornate performance in the opening ceremony was blemished when the fifth Olympic ring failed to open. Expected to react poorly, Russia surprised us all by poking fun at the late bloomer during the closing ceremony. The final rings were instead made of people, and at the very last moment the fifth ring opened to wild applause, suggesting that some in Russia were willing to reflect, self-criticise and perhaps acknowledge that their country’s achievements were sometimes imperfect.
With the Games over and the 2014 Paralympics now underway, the debate continues over the legacy of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. While many in the West may recall the accommodation nightmares, security concerns and organisational pitfalls, there were other stories worth remembering.
Sarah Hendrickson became the first female ski jumper in Olympic history; the Russian Federation won the first team figure skating gold; and seven Olympic records were set by Dutch speed skaters. But beyond the impressive athletic achievements, an even bigger transformation occurred. The Russian hosts opened their country to the world, and the Russian people — particularly the youth — proudly came together to celebrate the accomplishments of their countrymen. Despite continuing tensions over developments in Ukraine, the legacy of the Sochi Games should be the change in mentality, the celebration of culture and the efforts of the Russian people.
Kelsey Guyette is a programme assistant at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank in Washington DC. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: A brighter legacy for Sochi: a volunteer’s view