Even the most vocal critics of the Sochi Winter Olympics walked away with a grudging respect for Russia’s ability to put on a good show for the world.

The Closing Ceremony of the Olympics. Photo: flickr

Despite the criticism heading into the start of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian government and the country as a whole (perhaps for the first time in a very long while) managed to carry off a large-scale and ambitious plan. Not only did the Sochi Olympics give many Russians a chance to celebrate their nation’s achievements over a two-week period, but Sochi’s lingering success could also have some very beneficial long-term effects for Russia.

Proving the doomsayers wrong

The closer the Olympics got, the greater became the swell of pessimistic forecasts and criticism promising Russia, the world, guests, and participants a plague of woes: from terrorist attacks to covert surveillance in the showers, from an international political crisis to a lack of snow.

Such a large-scale event could never be entirely free of hitches, but it is clear now that these projections failed to materialize. Of course, it is very difficult to convince, say, U.S. reporters and commentators of Russia’s success, many of whom continue to call Russia the Soviet Union twenty years after the latter’s disappearance.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the Olympics, a change of tone was noted in America. Bob Costas, the main NBC anchorman in Sochi, said: “The Sochi games have gone much better than many feared and predicted. So far security has held fast, venues have been praised, athletes and spectators have almost unanimously cited the warmth and hospitality of their hosts.”

True, Costas ended his statement with a concession to the tacit rules of covering modern Russia (which was picked up by one of the top U.S. specialists on Russia, New York University's Professor Stephen Cohen, in an article for Nation magazine) by delivering an extensive critique of Russia's domestic and foreign policy.

In this sense, the contrast between the coverage of the Games in Europe and the U.S. was revealing. Whereas European journalists told their audiences about what was going on in Sochi, the Americans seized upon the slightest opportunity to poke criticism at Russia. However, it was almost always directed not at the Games, but once again at Russia’s domestic and foreign policy.

As for the Games themselves, the mood was summed up by David Remnick, editor of the influential magazine The New Yorker and former correspondent for The Washington Post in Moscow, who can hardly be accused of excessive sympathy towards Russia: “[W]hat Russia and ... Putin wanted out of this was to show a developing, modern country capable of putting on as good a show as Sydney or England or the rest. Politics aside, that's another set of issues, I think they did.”

Of course, much of the pre-Olympic criticism had a more serious import. The question was raised as to whether the country and its citizens needed the Games. Given the amount of money spent on them, many, especially the Russian opposition, said that it should have been spent on social welfare and economic development projects.

The outcome of the Games, however, highlighted the choice between hosting the Olympics and fulfilling Russia’s other needs. The success of the Olympics inspires hope that other goals — be it economic modernization or the development of a social system — can be achieved. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at what the Olympics could do for Russia.

Reinvigorating Russia’s proud sports tradition

The Olympics proved that the Russian authorities, and the country as a whole, can solve major tasks. If the know-how and skills acquired in preparing and holding the Games can be consolidated, it will be of far greater value than the many billions of dollars spent on Sochi.

It is difficult to measure in money the benefit that the Games will have for the development of sport and, consequently, health in Russia. Russian children and their parents, watching the triumphant performances of the country’s athletes, have been given serious cause to ponder a sporting career. Clearly, not all of them will be future Olympic medallists, or even join a national team or ever win a competition, but sport can make them healthier and more organized and purposeful.

If one looks at Russia’s results, it is impossible not to note the overall level of sports development in the country. It is no secret that Russia is not yet the most prosperous or flourishing country in the world, but in Sochi, Russian athletes surpassed competitors from countries offering far more favorable conditions for athletic achievement.

In analyzing the domestic ramifications of the Games, it is worth remembering in the end all the positive moments that Russia’s athletes gave their fellow countrymen. This newfound joy, good mood, and healthy patriotism cannot be measured in money, but there is no doubt that these emotions have improved the lives of many Russians.

Displaying a modern Russia to the world

The Olympics is one of the largest international events. Therefore, we cannot but pause to consider the external impact of the Games. Of course, it is too early to wrap up the ultimate effect that the Games will have on the country’s international image. But it is already clear that the efforts made in Sochi will have positive implications for that image.

For the international audience, it offered a unique glimpse of modern Russia. A heavy blow was dealt to the image created by Western propaganda during the Cold War decades. Russia was seen to possess not only strong athletes, but that these athletes are human.

From this perspective, recall the attention paid in America to the helmet of a Russian snowboarder who had written his phone number there for girls to contact him. It turned out that Russians are real people, not robots, as depicted in Hollywood for decades (suffice it to mention “Rocky IV”).

And it turned out that Russia is not a closed, inward-looking state, but a modern country able to prove itself to all — be it the multinational team of organizers, skater Victor An, or snowboarder Vic Wild. The latter two have repeatedly stated that their Olympic success would not have been possible without Russia.

Spectators of the Games and non-Russian participants had a unique opportunity to acquaint themselves with Russia and to learn about its history and culture. Whereas the Moscow Olympics in 1980 were boycotted by many in the West, the most recent Games featured mainly Western countries, athletes, and tourists, who, on returning home, were full of positive words about Russia, embellishing the enticing and wonderful image of the country created during the Opening and Closing ceremonies with their own narratives.

Before and during the Olympics much was said about Sochi being evidence of Russia’s return to the world stage. But the talk today should not be of the past: The Games have demonstrated once and for all that Russia is not the Soviet Union.

Even in terms of sport, Russia’s athletes beat the records set by Soviet athletes. Russia’s 33 medals were complemented by another 13 (six of them gold) from Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, and Kazakhstan, showing once again that modern Russia can be proud not only of its rich history, but present-day achievements, which lay the foundation for the country’s successful future.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.