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The build-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was fraught with worries about political unrest, uninhabitable athlete accommodation and conditions that quite simply did not lend themselves to the Winter Olympics. Team GB had also set themselves a target of three medals at the games – when considered alongside the fact that their all-time record was four at the 1924 Olympics, the scale of their ambition, and the subsequent potential for failure, was abundantly clear.
There were fears, even from before the opening ceremony, that Sochi simply was not capable of hosting an event of such a grand scale. Pictures of toilets without cubicle doors quickly went viral, a member of the American team had to smash his way through his jammed-shut bathroom door, and, perhaps more pertinently, the temperature appeared to be too high to host any kind of winter sport, with the mercury regularly reaching minus 10 degrees Celsius on the slopes.
These fears were not allayed at the Opening Ceremony, when one of the Olympic Rings (the one that represents America incidentally) failed to open, creating a myriad of conspiracy theories and rumours that Russian President Vladimir Putin was using the Olympics to make a political point. And yet, when the competition finally started, these problems fell out of focus, as the world enjoyed a two week feast of sporting prowess.
The drama on the final morning of competition summed up the fortnight at Sochi perfectly – three Russian skiers lunging for the line after the 50km ski-cross country race in the beautifully picturesque Caucasus Mountains; fantastic sporting competition matched only by the wondrous location. The feelings of sportsmanship, drama and fantastic competition are what the Olympic spirit intends to invoke – they were not only abundantly present here, but across all of the Games. The pain, and then elation, etched on Dutch Speed-Skater Michel Mulder’s face when he thought he had lost the Gold Medal in the 500m (before subsequently winning it on a photo-finish) was as pertinent and raw a moment as you are likely to observe in any Games.
Team GB also did themselves immensely proud, winning four medals, surpassing their own expectations and claiming the support of the nation. Lizzy Yarnold in the Skeleton, Jenny Jones in the snowboard and the two GB curling teams have, after the success of 2012, once again inspired a nation to get up and try a new sport, shown perfectly by #lovecurling trending on Twitter for much of the two week programme. The achievements of this team cannot be overstated: the equal best performance ever by a Great British team at the Winter Olympic Games. Thanks to such a performance, the team will have greater sponsorship potential, leading to increase in athlete funding and the number of medals potentially available at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Sochi was a great success for Team GB, and they will be looking to build on this in the coming years.
As a purely sporting event, Sochi had everything. Unfortunately when hosting such a global event, the focus cannot always solely be placed on sporting endeavours. A subject of significant scrutiny pre-Games was Russia’s iron-fisted approach to any form of protest and, unfortunately, this cast a shadow over aspects of the Games. Seeing the Russian protest band ‘Pussy Riot’ being beaten before a planned, and peaceful, protest in Sochi did little to help Russia’s international reputation when the pictures were quickly beamed around the world.
Members of Olympic teams were silenced by the International Olympic Committee, who were keen to avoid any form of controversy involving athletes. It could be argued that the result of this embargo was a passive acceptance of Russia’s homophobic and anti-protest laws by the athletes; more likely, the athletes were focused on maximising their chances of a medal rather than rocking the boat. When all is considered, this was an aspect of Sochi that was not successful, and simply reinforced the worldwide view that Russia is still far behind when it comes to citizens’ Human Rights and Freedom of Speech.
In adjudging the success of such a global event, the legacy of the Games must always be considered – in 4 years, what will we think of when considering the Sochi Games? The creation of such an impressive sporting complex allows Russia to enter the mainstream tourism market and also gives Russia’s elite athletes a designated training base, something which has been unavailable since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has also been argued that, despite the apathy shown during the Games, the scrutiny placed by the world on Russia’s under-fire policies will open the door to reform in the coming years. This could only be a success.
As the flame is extinguished in Sochi and the athletes return home, Russia, as well as Team GB, can reflect on a successful Games. When setting aside the political considerations, it is clear that the sporting events on show in Sochi were of the highest calibre, complete with moments of high drama and intense intrigue. When the PyeongChang Games come round in 2018 they will certainly have a tough job matching up to Sochi 2014.