Appeared in Business in Vancouver – February 25, 2014
Did the Winter Olympics in Sochi give Russia a big bang for the ruble?
Close-mouthed time will eventually tell if the stunning US$50 billion investment in the Sochi Games bought enough tourism and worldwide positive PR to justify the cost.
Put 10 number crunchers in the room and expect 11 different answers. “Like most large round numbers, this one needs a few caveats and asterisks,” writes Washington Post skeptic Paul Farhi, challenging “the consensus figure” of US$50 billion as too high. Anyway, a lot more than the widely accepted $6 billion cost of Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that the Vancouver Games contributed $2.5 billion to the B.C. economy, provided work for 45,000 and generated $463 million for the tourist trade. Hard to believe that the initial construction costs of the 1976 Montreal Olympics were a mere $770 million, ballooning to a further $1.47 billion for additional outlays including the infamous repairs. As for Mayor Jean Drapeau’s grand declaration that “the Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby” – well, somewhere a male must have produced an infant, because it took more than 30 years for Montreal to retire the $1 billion debt for the Games.
Measurable benefits aside, the goodwill, shinier-image value of the Games to the Russian federation is intangible. But, in the face of all manner of dire Western media prophecies, warnings and general bogey-man alarums, which Vancouver also experienced – the British press was particularly nasty, possibly an innate belief that the colonies were simply too raw, too bush to host such an event – the worst the advance guard of reporters experienced was half-built accommodation and oddly coloured tap water. Serves them right, one might say.
The Games themselves, including the gorgeous spectacle of the opening ceremonies, were magnificently successful entertainment, barely marred by a claim in the French sports newspaper L’Équipe that the Americans and Russians had connived in the Mutual Back-Scratching Competition. President Vladimir Putin’s respect seems to have jumped.
Surprises? Here’s one. An otherwise intelligent Vancouver woman turned away from the TV early in the Games to marvel: “That Russian woman – she’s beautiful!”
Yes, astonishing, isn’t it? Russian women can be beautiful, few perhaps as stunning as Greta Garbo depicted in Ninotchka, but pretty darn lovely. Several generations in the West were influenced by our Cold War propaganda. Editorial page cartoonists have much to answer for: if their symbol of Russia wasn’t a menacing bear, it was a drab woman built like a fire plug and sporting a babushka.
Back to hard figures. It’s a surprise that the 2006 census counted 500,600 ethnic Russians in Canada, 114,105 in British Columbia. Among them: actress and legendary Playmate Pamela Anderson (who knew?), Nobel literature laureate Saul Bellow, the outstanding Ignatieffs, George and son Michael, and late prominent University of British Columbia physicist George Volkoff.
Russia-Canada trade is modest: in 2012 Canada imported $994.5 million of goods from Russia and exported $1.551 billion. B.C.’s share of our exports was $104.6 million – considering our relative proximity, a rather low 7% of the total and only fifth among provinces and territories.
The Cold War obscured the flat fact that the Soviet Union suffered by far the most deaths in the Second World War, which Russians deservedly call the Great Patriotic War, and was indispensable in crushing Hitler. Today the West has enough ills not to condescend toward a people beaten by a century of oligarchy, revolution, tyranny, hardship and post-collapse turmoil. Maybe Sochi will help leap the gap.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014