Russian President Vladimir Putin chalked up a major personal victory on Wednesday with the selection of the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Putin had made winning the games a major political goal and he engaged himself personally to win, taking his cue from Tony Blair's successful London Olympic bid.
"This is, without doubt, not just a recognition of Russia's sporting achievements but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgement on our country," Putin said on Thursday. "It is a recognition of our growing capability, first of all economically and socially." Under Putin's presidency, Russia has seen dramatic economic growth and has also reestablished itself as an important political player on the global stage.
IOC President Jacques Rogge described the Sochi bid as a "strong and visionary project. I have every confidence that Sochi will host excellent games in 2014."
Putin had lobbied intensely at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala on Wednesday and gained the leading edge over Pyeongchang, South Korea, which had been the frontrunner to land the games and even won the first round of voting. Ultimately, though, Putin was able to swing committee voters to Sochi in a second round, beating out South Korea by 51 to 47.
"Putin being here was very important," French IOC member and former ski champion Jean-Claude Killy said, according to AP. "He worked very hard at it. He was nice. He spoke French -- he never speaks French. He spoke English -- he never speaks English."
In recent weeks, Putin has made more headlines for his threat to select new nuclear targets in Europe if the United States moves forward with its planned missile defense shield than his Olympic bid. And on Wednesday, Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov threatened to move new missiles closer to Lithuania and Poland in response to the missile shield. But Putin's charm offensive in Guatemala paid off and he flew back to Moscow with a decision every Russian could celebrate.
Dimitry Chernyshenko told the committee the victory was a "key moment in Russian history. You have decided to play a major role in Russia's future. The games will help Russia's transition as a young democracy." Russia, he added, is the "largest winter country in the world" and "winter sport and the Olympic spirit are part of our heritage."
Still, although the Sochi Olympics will put Russia's recent economic gains under the world spotlight, they will also draw attention to the democratic deficiencies that have come to define Putin's presidency, including government control of much of the mainstream media, crackdowns on non-government organizations and human rights groups and massive consolidation of political power within the Kremlin walls.
The Russian government has said it will invest $12 billion (€8.5 billion) to transform Sochi and the nearby mountain resort of Krasnaya Polona into a winter sports complex worthy of the Olympic Games. Russian gas monopoly Gazprom alone is planning to invest $375 million in the Psekhako Ridge resort, which is expected to be a major games venue. Other investors have lined up to build gondolas, ski lifts and runs that are expected to establish the area as a world-class ski resort long after the games are finished.
The city, with a population of 400,000, is located along the temperate Black Sea coast against a backdrop of the dramatic Caucasus mountains where many of the sporting events will be held. "On the seashore you can enjoy a fine spring day," Putin said, but up in the mountains, it's winter and real snow is guaranteed."
Russia held the Summer Games in Moscow in 1980, but it has never hosted the Winter Olympics and that is said to have helped sway the IOC as it made its selection.