Putin’s mega-event boom coming to an end

Pia Koivunen,
Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, European and World History,
The School of History, Culture and Art Studies,
University of Turku,

During Vladimir Putin’s years in power, Russia has hosted more mega-events than ever before in its history. We remember the USSR as a sporting superpower, being one of the top countries in almost every field, however, the Soviet list of hosting mega-events is simple and short. Before Putin’s presidencies, Moscow had hosted only one such event: the Summer Olympic Games in 1980.

To compare with: in the 2010s, Russian federation has organized the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi in 2014 and the FIFA World Cup in 2018 as well as a number of smaller scale competitions, like world championships in a variety of sports, and the students’ Universiades in Kazan in 2013 and in Krasnoyarsk in 2019. Russia has also once won the Eurovision Song Contest, which gives the right the host the competition next year, and finally, bid three times for the World Expo.

Mega-events, as defined by Martin Müller, are global gatherings, which come with large costs, attract huge numbers of visitors, have mediated reach and transformable impact. The history of mega-events dates back to the mid-19th century, when the world’s fairs, the largest event at the time, gathered millions of people to familiarize themselves with the latest technological innovations and masterpieces of arts. During the 20th and 21st centuries, sporting games have grown the most popular and significant form of mega-events.

Russia’s eagerness to host significant international events is part of a global trend, where mega-events have increasingly moved from North America and Europe to BRICS-countries, Eurasia and the Global South. For example, we will see the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Expo in Dubai later this year, as well as the FIFA world cup in Qatar and the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.

Throughout modern history, state leaders have embraced the idea of demonstrating their personal power with pretentious spectacles. In similar fashion, Putin has employed sports and other types of mega-events in order to show that the country has re-emerged as a great power after the devastation of the immediate post-Soviet years.

Unlike for many other countries, however, image-building and international prestige have not been the primary goals in holding mega-events. As many scholars have argued, Russia has focused more on domestic audience, cultivating patriotism and maintaining the current neo-authoritarian system of governance. For Putin, mega-events have served as a way to strengthen his grip on power and allowed his favoured elites to receive generous contracts in return for their loyalty.

Russian recent mega-events have typically channelled resources beyond the capital area. Mega-events, major events and political summits organized in cities like Sochi, Kazan and Yekaterinburg have accelerated urban regeneration, brought investments and made Russia beyond Moscow better known to the world public. At the same time, the gap between wealthy and underdeveloped areas has grown.

The Russian way of arranging mega-events has not been spared from criticism. Corruption, misspending, violation of minority rights, poor working conditions of foreign labour as well as the accusations of the state-sponsored doping programme have left their mark on Putin’s spectacles. Despite critical voices related to the arrangements of the games and to the recent military operations in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, Russia’s right to hold international events has not been genuinely questioned.

A radical change is now in view. The latest turn in Russia’s doping scandal dating back to 2015 might be the ultimate game changer. In December 2019, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) suggested banning Russian federation from global sports for four years. In addition to keeping a large amount of Russian athletes out of the forthcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics and other global competitions, the ban would also mark an end to Russia’s mega-event boom.

If the ban comes into effect, Russia cannot organize, bid for or be granted the right to host any major sporting games for four years. Whether Russia will be allowed to host the events already awarded to it, like the world championships in ice hockey and the Summer Universiade scheduled for 2023, remains to be seen. What is clear by now is that Putin’s mega-event boom hardly ends the way he had envisioned it.

Email: pia.koivunen@utu.fi

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