Pride and Prejudice: a British Perspective on the Sochi Olympics

Naturally, too, the Russian crowd cheered to the rafters each and every home performance, but I detected a genuine appreciation of the foreign competitors and a genuine pride in what a sporting spectacle their country had provided.

As the final firework fizzled out from the dazzling closing ceremony on the shores of the Black Sea, it was time to take stock of the seventeen days of intense competition, excitement, jubilation and heartbreak that was the Sochi Olympics. To say that Russia finished these Games on a high is an understatement for the host nation not only finished top of the medals table, but also achieved a clean sweep in the 50km cross country skiing and won the four-man bobsleigh. Indeed, such was the feel good factor that even the massive disappointment of the Russian men’s ice-hockey team unexpectedly early exit from the tournament for this day, at least, could be forgotten. How sweet to the Russian ear must have been closing speech of the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who praised the excellence of the organization and conduct of the Games and singled out for special mention the efforts of the army of young Russian volunteers in making the Sochi Olympics such a positive experience for competitors and public alike.

In Great Britain, too, the overwhelming balance of opinion was that the Games had been a success for the Russian hosts (in an online poll in The Guardian 77% registered a positive impression). This was all the more remarkable in that, in the run-up to the Games, much of the British media had appeared obsessed with certain negative aspects of the Olympics: the ‘anti-gay legislation’, the excessive cost of the Games and attendant corruption as well as the threat of terrorist attacks emanating from the North Caucasus. At times it seemed that all of the old anti-Russian prejudices left over from the Cold War were being given a new lease of life.

However, our own feel good factor left over from the successful staging of the Summer Olympics in the UK in 2012 encouraged the BBC to devote time, resources and personnel to a comprehensive coverage of the Sochi Games. Although I had attended the Moscow Olympics of 1980 (and, of course, the 2012 Games in London) in person, like most of my fellow countrymen and women, I watched the Sochi events on TV, thrilling to both the new sports, such as snowboarding and the luge relay, and unfamiliar ones, for example, women’s ice hockey and biathlon. Undoubtedly, British interest was fired by the early medal, our first in any snow event at a Winter Olympics, won by Jenny Jones in the snowboard slopestyle, fed by the success of both our men and women’s curling teams and reaching a peak with Lizzy Yarnold’s gold medal in the skeleton.

Unlike much of the US coverage, however, British TV was not overly preoccupied with the performances of its own nationals to the detriment of all other competitors. On the contrary, we oohed and aahed at the skill and brilliance of other nationalities in events in which we had, in some cases, no entrants, let alone serious medal contenders. We were rewarded with such keen and emotionally gripping competition, that gradually the hearts of all but the most die-hard of Russophobes were melted. Who could forget the drama of the USA v Russia men’s, or Canada v USA women’s hockey matches, the dead heat in the women’s downhill Alpine skiing, the cross-country ski relays and the breathtakingly brave exploits at the Sanki Sliding Centre?

Of course, as in any major sporting extravaganza there were moments of controversy; the disallowed Russian goal in the aforementioned ice hockey match, the alleged undermarking of Korea’s Kim Yuna on the ice rink and the disqualification not once, not twice, but three times (!!!) of Scotland’s Elise Christie in the short track speed skating. Yet the overall impression was one of intensively competitive but fair endeavor in true Olympian spirit.

Naturally, too, the Russian crowd cheered to the rafters each and every home performance, but I detected a genuine appreciation of the foreign competitors and a genuine pride in what a sporting spectacle their country had provided.

Certainly, in interviews with British competitors, our athletes had nothing but praise for their hosts and the Olympic venues.

So well done Russia, you have good reason to be proud of the welcome, hospitality and generosity which characterized these Games. In the achievements of your sportsmen and women, in your enthusiastic volunteers and in your cheerful spectators, the rest of the world gained a glimpse of a newer, younger, more internationally engaged Russian people promising much for the future.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.