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Putinstances: What Do the Olympics Mean to Putin?

  • Published
  • By Major Melissa Jamison, USAF

“Sports as judo, in my view, teach people to relate to each other. They teach us to respect a partner, teach us to understand that an externally weak partner can not only put up worthy resistance but if you relax and take too much for granted, may even win." – Vladimir Putin.1

Vladimir Putin uses his judo advice as a metaphor for Russian relations with Western countries. Is it merely coincidence or pure poetry that Putin, at 69 years old and arguably the embodiment of Russia, is escalating aggression against the structure of the West on the eve of the Beijing Olympics? Westerns tend to underestimate the power of symbolism and consequently disregard patterns as correlated but isolated events. This teleological view prevents comprehension of other cultures. Russian culture is structured by myth, metaphor, and the indomitable belief in its place as the Third Rome. It is a place where symbolism holds great power, even transcending borders, over the identity of its people.2 Putin is a master of international political Jenga, a game in which the blocks seem to always fall in his favor. Putin structures domestic stability through systematic power consolidation and challenges global stability through acts of entropy, with a curious pattern of significance around Olympic competitions. As Russian forces concentrate on the Ukrainian border disguised as an exercise with a backdrop of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Putin's power projection trend is even more evident.

Elected president in 2000 and launched into internal civil unrest, the Russian people looked to Putin to provide stability in a country steeped in terror, distrust, and unpredictability. The same force structure which created the domestic stability and predictability many Russians craved came at the cost of liberalized Western democratic ideals (see appendix). While correlation can never empirically equate to causation, an authoritarian leader like Putin repeatedly seeks to create order, or control, of a chaotic world and thereby creates a recognizable pattern of decisions. His 22-year era as president and prime minister provides a trendline of conjecture for the future. In his first year of presidency, Putin reformed the federal system and systematically initiated repatriation of private industry and media to centralize power for predictability in the state's interest.3 By doing so, he redistributed power from the oligarchs competing for Russian influence to sycophants. As the president, Putin is the guarantor of the Constitution and the rights of its citizens; he truly is the “dictator(ship) of law.”4 Putin resuscitated the Russian economy by the serendipity of timing; the price of gas and oil increased internationally, forcing the economy to rebound by almost 7% each year for eight consecutive years after his election.5 Putin’s plans to restore the international prestige of his country grew in parallel with his Olympic dreams as democratization conversely declined (see appendix). A clear picture of Russian expansion and irredentism under Putin develops when using the Olympic games as a zoetrope to examine significant events.

Underestimating the importance of the Olympic Games to Putin is a serious blunder. Putin’s first speech in English was part of an endeavor to host the London 2012 games.6  In  2003, Putin initiated the bidding process for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a very ambitious aspiration for a country still recovering from economic woes and crumbling infrastructure. In the 117th International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Singapore, Russia was eliminated in the first round on 6 July 2005.7 In 2007, in a move unprecedented for a head of state, Putin flew to the 119th IOC session to bid in-person for the 2014 Winter Olympics.8 The video documenting the event demonstrates Putin's new level of commitment, as he speaks confidently in English and French.9 He wins over the IOC, perhaps swayed by his guarantee of a dizzying $12 billion investment. Still, the Games' setting is dubious, with serious security concerns arising from the location in the Caucus.10 For the population of Russia, it is a bold but brilliant move. Following the Olympics, he will demonstrate to the world, and his people, his ability to manipulate the most diverse and anarchic region to his demand. Putin’s actions in 2007 indicated his intention to return to the presidential seat in 2012 to oversee the enormous commitment of resources in the execution of the Sochi Olympics. His technique for both judo and international affairs echoes the Sun-Tzu indirect approach: “those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle.”11 Putin’s plans are never coincidental; he may be winning a war of his own aim that the West does not lucidly understand.

Since the 2014 Olympics, Russia has put forward three separate bids to host the Olympics in 2036. This bold, unprecedented bid of three cities simultaneously demonstrates Putin's intent to remain a great power with expansive modern infrastructure in several locations across Russia. 2036 is exceptional as it will be the last year that Putin could be in office at 84 years old and the end of his fourth consecutive term. Ivan Ilyin’s prediction is hauntingly prescient: “Russia will not perish as a result of dismemberment but will begin to repeat the whole course of her history. Like a great 'organism,' she will set out again to gather her 'constituent parts."12 The conflicts with Georgia during the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Crimea during the Sochi Olympics in 2014 were not unplanned. In 2022, when Putin is 69 years old and has the same lifespan as the former Soviet Union, we may witness additional Russian influence flexed over the former republics. Timing and symbolism are never insignificant in Russia. 10 February marks the 31st anniversary of the Lithuanian people's popular vote to depart the USSR, the first genuinely popular democratic action to dismember the 'organism,' and may be of consequence. Putin is willing to act demonstratively to secure the Russian Empire while the world watches the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Global powers take heed; with Putin, the circumstances are never coincidental.

The outcome of about is decided not only by crude physical strength, but also by the ability to act effectively, to use your head and be a master, a good master, of a set of movements, and holds. – Vladimir Putin

Major Melissa Jamison
Major Melissa Jamison is an AY22 ACSC student. She is a 2009 graduate of the Air Force Academy with a degree in Foreign Area Studies and minors in Russian and Philosophy, and a Masters in Accounting. She is a Force Support Officer and upon graduating will take command of the 22nd Force Support Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base. Her interest in the Olympic sports was sparked from her swimming and dressage background. 


1.  Vladimir Putin. 60 Minutes Interview with Mike Wallace. 8 May 2005.

2. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment,” Cultural Studies, Mar 2016, Vol. 30, Issue 2, 234-260.

3. David W. Rivera and Sharon Wening Rivera. The Militarization of Russian Elite under Putin: What We Know, What We Think We Know (but Don’t), and What We Need to Know, 223.

4. Thomas Remington, Politics in Russia, 7th ed, (Abingdon, UK: 2016), 220.

5. Timothy Snyder. The Road to Unfreedom. (Timm Duggan, NY: 2018), 47.

6. AP Archive, “Putin Comments on Russia’s Olympic Bid,” 6 July 2005.

7. International Olympic Committee. “2012 Olympic Games Bid Procedures.” April 2010.

8. Anna Alekseyeva, “Sochi 2014 and the Rhetoric of a New Russia: Image Construction Through Mega Events,” East European Politics, 158-174.

9. RT News. “Full Version of Putin Speech “2014 Olympics,” 5 July 2007, 30-40.

10. Bo Petersson, “Still Embodying the Myth? Russia’s Recognition as a Great Power and the Sochi Winter Games,” Problems of Post-Communism, Jan/Feb 2014.

11. Antulio J. Echevarria. Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford University Press, NY: 2017), 109.

12. “Ivan Ilyin: Conservative or Fascist?” Russian Life, 61, no. 6, Nov-Dec 2018, 38.




















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