How we will remember the Sochi Olympics

2014 Winter Olympics
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 2/24/14, 12:00 pm

The giant, Gummi-esque bear that served as the Sochi games mascot has shed a tear and blown out the flaming cauldron, signaling the end of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The United States came in fourth in the gold medal count and second overall, losing the bragging rights it won in Vancouver with its record-setting 37 medals. Russia beat the rest of the world with 33 total medals, 13 of which were gold.

U.S. athletes failed to garner a single medal in speed skating, and Canada schooled us in both men’s and women’s hockey. But Team USA didn’t embarrass itself, either. We still own snowboarding, taking golds in men’s and women’s slopestyle. We took 12 medals in skiing, and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated to perfection to beat rival Canada.

Arguably the biggest contest of these Olympics, however, was Russia’s bid for international respect. The games gave President Vladimir Putin a chance to show the world how far Russia has come in the 22 years since communism fell.

Russia kept the games safe despite numerous terror threats leading into the event. (A CNN poll before the games started showed 57 percent of Americans expected a terror attack.) Sochi helped modernize the Winter Olympics with X Games-style events such as halfpipe skiing, slopestyle snowboard, and team figure skating, which mirrors the summer games’ team competition in gymnastics.

With its opening and closing ceremonies, Russia reminded the world of the hundreds of years of pre-Soviet culture that birthed generations of artistic genius. Russia also showed it has a sense of humor. In the closing ceremony, a group of dancers paid tribute to the malfunction that caused a stunted display of the Olympic rings in the opening ceremony.

It cost Russia $51 billion to transform Sochi from an unimpressive outpost on the Black Sea to the shiny, European-style resort town it became for the games. The country seems unlikely to recoup that investment. While the improved accommodations will probably draw more Russians to Sochi for vacation, the hard-to-reach destination can’t compete on an international level with Europe’s top tourist attractions and ski resorts. The Russian government has estimated the Olympic venues in Sochi will require $2 billion a year in maintenance after the games.

Russia’s outlay for the games amounts to an expensive entry fee in an international popularity contest, one whose gains could soon diminish depending on Russia’s response to the crisis in neighboring Ukraine. Not wasted, however, were the efforts of Russian athletes, who won the most medals overall and the most gold medals. Their high-profile team figure skating victory made international celebrities of beloved nationals Yulia Lipnitskaia, Evgeni Plushenko, and skating pair Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.

In the aftermath of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia is putting the spotlight on its athletes and downplaying everything else—from the missing doorknobs in Sochi hotels to the violent suppression of the protest band Pussy Riot.

“It was a fantastic performance, great work by the coach and federation. They did everything professionally and put such a great ending,” Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s minister of sport, told the Russian television network R-Sport. “The team has exceeded the plan. The rest isn’t important.”

2014 Winter Games medal count

Total medals

Russia: 33

United States: 28

Norway: 26

Canada: 25

Gold medals

Russia: 13

Norway: 11

Canada: 10

United States: 9

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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