Sports have performed key functions in both Soviet and Russian politics. During the Soviet era, rooting for Moscow’s Spartak soccer team was a sly way to voice opposition to the regime, particularly when the team played Dinamo, which was associated with the secret police, according to historian Robert Edelman.
PONARS Eurasia member Vadim Volkov’s book Violent Entrepreneurs traces the origins of some gang members to the Soviet sports system, which collapsed during the late 1980s along with the economy. By 1990, many athletes who might have once made a career in athletic clubs instead used their informal connections to join crime groups. Now, the Russian leadership is trying to use international sporting events as a way of fighting corruption according to Ben Aris writing in the latest issue of the Russian Analytical Digest.
Building any kind of infrastructure in Russia often takes much longer than planned and the results frequently do not meet international standards. One way to impose some sort of external control is to tie this infrastructure development to international sporting events, such as the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where there is a non-negotiable deadline and a failure to meet international standards would cause Russia extensive embarrassment. While there is still no way to limit cost overruns – building a road in Moscow costs 10 times as much as in Berlin – there seems to be less concern about this issue in the context of rising oil prices. However, while Russia has set out an ambitious challenge for itself, the task may be too great. Initial estimates for the construction were $12 billion, but now the price tag is expected to be $30 billion, according to Valery Dzutsev. He also warns that Russia might not be able to address the security challenges posed by the spreading violence in the North Caucasus close to Sochi. Memorial reports that nearly 300 law enforcement officials and soldiers died in militant attacks in 2010.
Additionally, Circassian groups are advocating the games be moved because they charge that Russians carried out genocide against their predecessors in the nineteen century, staging a victory parade in Sochi in 1864. The stakes are particularly high for the Russians. They see their hosting of the Olympics and 2018 FIFA World Cup as a demonstration of Russia’s return to great power status. Putin has built up the country through a policy of backing national champions in strategic sectors of the economy and these highly profitable companies are expected to sponsor Russian sports teams, according to Markku Jokisipilä.
Companies like Gazprom and Rosneft have poured considerable funds into the Russian national hockey team. It won consecutive World Championship titles in 2008 and 2009, though the team suffered defeat at the hands of the Canadians in the 2010 Olympics quaterfinals. Nevertheless, the rise of the Continental Hockey League has offered real competition to the North American National Hockey League. The Russians hope that an ice hockey victory in the 2014 will put them back on top.
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