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Associated Press
Vladimir Putin and IOC President Thomas Bach meet at Sunday’s closing ceremony.

That Olympic afterglow

Ukraine aside, Putin’s audacity is rewarded

Reading all the positive reactions to the Olympics, I can’t help imagining how a flunky of Vladimir Putin would put together a selection of quotes to please the boss – to make the president feel as though he had won all of Russia’s world-beating 33 medals, including 13 golds.

The Washington Post, known for its anti-Putin editorial line, published this from the Associated Press: “All-new facilities, unthinkable in the Soviet era of drab shoddiness, showcased how far Russia has come in the two decades since it turned its back on communism.”

What mattered was not that Russia spent $50 billion, but that the world actually liked what it bought.

Olympics organizers recruited top international talent from Cirque du Soleil for the opening ceremony. For the close, they hired star Swiss director Daniele Finzi Pasca, who had done the same job in Turin in 2006. The opening ceremonies sparkled despite the well-publicized mishap with the snowflake that failed to open into an Olympic ring. At the closing, Finzi Pasca made fun of the failure, re-creating the unopened ring with hundreds of dancers. “The … ceremonies were magnificent – projections of Russian art, culture and creativity that should continue to inspire the country and the world,” gushed Toronto’s Globe and Mail.

Grumbling about unfinished hotels and weird toilets gave way to admiration for the way Russia rebuilt Sochi, once a shabby Soviet-era resort. “It is amazing what they have done, not just the volume of construction,” the Miami Herald quoted U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun as saying. “If you look at the bridges and roads, it is really quality construction, and we are very impressed.”

Even the 70,000 troops and police who inundated Sochi were dressed in friendly-looking, colorful clothes. “Their policemen and soldiers, amid the gargantuan but rarely oppressive security operation, never stopped smiling,” the Telegraph observed. No one failed to mention the fact that all the security worries from before the Olympics had been misplaced.

Russians, for their part, were blown away by their team’s unexpected success after the shameful 11th-place showing in Vancouver four years ago. “Olympics is war and we have won this one,” publisher Yevgeny Kapyev wrote triumphantly on Facebook.

So what if former Russian citizens won in biathlon for Slovakia and in snowboarding for Switzerland? Naturalized Russians such as South Korean short-track skater Viktor Ahn and U.S.-born snowboarder Vic Wild more than made up for that, showing that high-caliber foreigners wanted to move to Russia as much as some Russians were eager to leave.

To be sure, in my Kremlin flunky impersonation, I’m skating around some mild criticism. I do not want to upset Putin as he basks in his success, particularly considering that the warm and fuzzy feeling could be short-lived.

The Olympics were, after all, only a sporting event. After seven years of preparation, they raced by in 17 days. Sporting events are not meant to have any lasting effect, no matter what political importance one might attach to them. There will always be the next world championship, the next Olympics. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, now hunted by the protesters who overthrew him last weekend, knows all about the ephemeral nature of sporting success. It was as recently as the summer of 2012 that Ukraine received rave reviews for its co-hosting of the European soccer championship, a major event that drew hundreds of thousands of fans.

Back then, harmless patriotic feeling in Kiev ran high. People decorating their cars with national flags were not thinking about riots and revolutions. Things went downhill from there as Ukraine’s corrupt elite failed to contain its greed. Both Ukrainians and the ever-fickle international media quickly forgot the soccer magic.

For Putin, avoiding a similar fate will be a much tougher job than staging even the most spectacular Olympics in history.

Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View.

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