The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics were President Vladimir Putin’s pet project as he sought to expand Russia’s global clout, boost its prestige and impress the world.
But the Kremlin’s attempt at soft power soon collided with hard realities.
It became the most expensive Olympics ever — summer or winter — with costs that ballooned to $55 billion and fueled suspicions of rampant corruption. Critics pointed to environmental damage from construction projects and abuse of migrant workers who built the 11 sports venues, railways, roads and other infrastructure for athletes and spectators.
Even before the world descended on the balmy resort where the Caucasus Mountains meet the Black Sea, Putin had set Russia on an increasingly repressive and isolationist course. He intensified a crackdown on opposition activists, stigmatized civil society groups as “foreign agents,” approved laws that curtailed LGBTQ+ rights, and banned adoption of Russian children by U.S. parents.
Trying to assuage Western criticism, authorities freed imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had earlier challenged Putin’s authority. Also given amnesty were Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, members of the Pussy Riot punk collective who were jailed for their anti-Putin protest in Moscow’s main cathedral.
The Olympics kicked off on Feb. 7, 2014 with a grandiose opening ceremony watched by billions worldwide that offered a majestic show of Russian history and culture, marred only by a glitch: Only four of the five snowflakes designed to become Olympic rings before erupting in fireworks actually worked.
Fears of terrorist attacks that loomed heavily over the games didn’t materialize amid tight security measures that included placing air defense assets near Olympic venues, but Russia’s repressive side showed through on Feb. 19 when a hard-line Russian nationalist militia broke up a protest in central Sochi by members of Pussy Riot, beating and whipping them in an incident that drew international scorn.
Russia’s quest for Olympic glory resulted in 33 medals, but those successes became tainted after international officials later uncovered a state-sponsored scheme to provide athletes with performance-enhancing drugs -– a scandal that sullies the country’s reputation to this day. Russia had to compete without its flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“No one can take away our victories, although they have tried,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko, who headed the Sochi Olympics organizing committee and is now a deputy prime minister, speaking at Tuesday’s opening of an exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of the Games.
As the Sochi Games wound down, violence escalated on the streets of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Scores of people were killed by sniper fire during a showdown between police and protesters rallying against a decision by the pro-Moscow government to cancel an integration deal with the European Union.
Just as the Sochi Olympics were closing, protesters in Kyiv forced President Viktor Yanukovych to leave the capital and flee to Russia. Putin saw those demonstrations as part of a U.S.-orchestrated plot to humiliate Moscow.
Russia eventually responded to the ouster by illegally annexing Crimea. Later, it threw its support behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, triggering hostilities that set the stage for the full-scale invasion that began on Feb. 24, 2022 — eight years and one day after the close of the Winter Olympics.
The resort city later hosted other international sporting events, including Formula One racing, until the event was pulled from Russia in response to the conflict in Ukraine.
Putin still blames the West for Yanukovych’s downfall. In December, he described it as a U.S.-led coup, adding: “Our American friends did it. We haven’t forgotten it and we never will.”