Even Vladimir Putin’s Russian critics are rallying around the president to revel in the country’s first Winter Olympics, dismissing western complaints about facilities, security and graft.
As the competition in Sochi enters week two, Russia is swelling with pride over its first Olympics since Moscow in 1980, even at the cost of $44 billion. If the cheering continues, Putin can expect a bump in his approval rating, which is hovering near a low of 43 percent, according to the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM.
“Foreigners are talking about corruption and possible explosions -- what can I say?” said Rafael Atamoglanov, 32, a real estate agent from Kostroma, northeast of Moscow, who’s in Sochi for a week. “Vladimir Putin gave a present to us with this Olympics. All criticism is rooted in envy.”
Russian teams took gold and silver in the pairs free skating event on Feb. 12, giving the nation its biggest reason to celebrate so far. If the medals keep coming, Putin’s rating, now at 44 percent, may rise as much as 3 percentage points after the games end on Feb. 23, FOM chief Alexander Oslon said by phone from the Russian capital.
Putin was at the Iceberg Skating Palace on Feb. 9 when 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya stoked Russia’s patriotic fervor with a standing-ovation performance in the team figure skating event that earned the country its first gold of the games. It also made Lipnitskaya Russia’s youngest Winter Olympic champion.
“The girl is a miracle,” said Tamara Krivtsova, a 71-year-old caretaker from the nearby city of Krasnodar. “Our figure skaters are just marvelous. I came here to see what was done and I am happy.”
Two nights earlier, Putin, 61, presided over a lavish opening ceremony that became the country’s most-watched sports event ever. The three-hour show, filled with high-tech pageantry that lionized Russian history, was viewed by almost 43 million people inside the country, according to Moscow-based research group TNS. That’s more than saw Russia’s semi-final match against Spain in the 2008 European Football Championship, when it was also the host country.
“Negative news is news for one day,” Oslon said. “The Olympics is going to stay in Russian memory as a historical event. It’s a big, positive event that people will remember and be proud of.”
Putin’s rating has fallen along with the pace of Russia’s economic growth, which plunged by more than half last year to 1.3 percent. From 52 percent in the second quarter of 2012, after Putin won a third term as president with 64 percent of the vote, it reached 43 percent last November, according to data on FOM’s website that didn’t include margins of error.
Most Russians love the Olympics because they yearn to win, according to Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy head of the Levada Center polling group in Moscow.
“The positive feeling about the Olympics is born out of people’s hopes for victory,” Grazhdankin said by phone. “Expectations of success have risen.”
Russia’s two golds so far is one shy of its total in Vancouver and ties it for seventh. It ranks fourth with 11 medals in total as of 6:45 p.m. today, after Norway’s 13 and 12 each for the U.S. and the Netherlands. Four years ago, Russians won 15 medals.
As more victors are crowned, attention is shifting away from the skepticism and ridicule that some western athletes, journalists and visitors expressed about the conditions in Sochi via Twitter Inc. and other social media in the run-up to the competition.
“It is not so much always the quantity of tweets but the sentiment of this social interaction which makes Sochi stand out,” Ben Pincus of Repucom, a global sports market research agency, said in a note today. “Topics which would perhaps usually revolve around athletes and events before the games instead included much more focus on the political landscape.”
Complaints about side-by-side toilets, unfinished hotels, poorly furnished rooms and water that was sometimes discolored and sometimes cold inspired the English-language Twitter feed @SochiProblems, which gathered more followers than the official @sochi2014 account.
The focus of posts has shifted to the athletes and events, with more than 9.2 million posts about the games on Twitter, according to Repucom’s Pincus.
The negative posts prompted one vocal Putin critic, best-selling novelist Boris Akunin, to take up the defense.
“The mass Facebook masochism about the shamefulness, absurdity and nastiness of how everything is organized in Sochi is suddenly terribly irritating,” Akunin said on Facebook Inc. the day before the opening ceremony. “I swear to God, I am not prepared to live by the principle: If it’s bad for Putin, it’s good for us.”
Twin suicide bombings by Islamist militants in December in Volgograd, about 400 miles (645 kilometers) from Sochi, killed more than 30 people, casting a pall over final preparations for the games. Putin has deployed 40,000 police and special-services troops to seal off the Black Sea resort.
The U.S. Olympics Committee warned its athletes not to wear their uniforms outside the venues to avoid being targeted by extremists, while Australia told its contingent not to travel outside the Sochi area.
Those fears have proven unfounded, at least so far, according to Alex Britcher, who’s in Sochi to root for his younger sister Summer in the luge. Britcher, 23, said he’s been wearing his American pride with a stars-and-stripes jumpsuit at the Sanki Sliding Center and getting a lot of love from Russians in return.
“They’re trying to show that America is welcome here,” Britcher said. “Everyone is happy to see me. Russians come up to me with their flags and say ‘hey, friends, friends.’”
That warmth may chill, though, if Russia fails to win as many medals as people expect, according to Grazhdankin, the Levada pollster.
“That would likely bolster anti-Western sentiments because about half of Russians are ready to believe that there is an anti-Russian conspiracy in the world and negative foreign media coverage is just another example,” Grazhdankin said.
Putin promised the Russian team at Vancouver in 2010 that he’d make Sochi “cool,” and the world is paying attention, judging by the number of people watching on television.
The average TV audience for Sochi is 8 percent higher than for the Vancouver Games, a difference of 25.1 million viewers, the Interfax news service reported Feb. 12, citing data from the International Olympic Committee.
“The Olympics help improve investors’ perception of Russia,” Boris Vilidnitsky, an analyst at Barclays Plc (BARC) in London, said Feb. 11 by phone. “People watch the games and realize the potential of the country.”
Russians are also snapping up Olympics-related memorabilia at a clip that’s surprised analysts at firms from Barclays to Moscow-based UralSib Financial Corp., with revenue from the Sochi 2014 marketing program already exceeding $1.3 billion, according to the official Sochi website.
Yuliana Slascheva, the 39-year-old head of independent television network CTC Media Inc. (CTCM), said she doesn’t see how she could end up being disappointed with her experience or the Russian team’s performance, given what’s she’s seen so far.
“The opening ceremony was fantastic and the organization of the sporting events is among the best I’ve ever seen,” said Slascheva, a hockey and biathlon fan. “I’m absolutely amazed by the quality of the facilities in Sochi. I’m like a kid in Disneyland, taking photos of everything.”