On the face of it a winter Games should hold no lessons for a summer football World cup. Yet Sochi 2014 does have lessons for Brazil 2014 and it would be unwise of the Brazilians to ignore what is taking place along the Black Sea.
Brazil it must be said starts with an advantage that Sochi could never have had. For anyone interested in football Brazil is the home of football. England may have invented the game and framed the rules but Brazil, at least since the 1950 World Cup which as it happens was held in Brazil, has defined all that is good and glorious in the round ball game. Even those devoted to their national team feel somewhat comforted that their team has lost to Brazil and not some other nation. No team generates such a feeling in any sport with the possible exception of the All Blacks in rugby. And in Pele, Brazilians have a name that dwarfs everyone else in football. Even those who know little about Brazil, let alone football, know who Pele is. Pele is not just a name but a symbol and, in the sporting world, probably more powerful than even the Samba in defining the international image of Brazil.
Russia has no such sporting figure and, in any case, Russia is no longer the dominant power it once was in winter sports, indeed, the reason given for building the facilities in Sochi is that it will help recreate this lost world. Also with winter Olympics, like the summer Olympics, being a festival of many sports a direct sporting comparison with a single sports event does not altogether hold.
But having said that Brazil needs to answer a question: why are they staging the World Cup? They need to know who their target audience is otherwise they face the dismal prospect of spending a huge amount of money and yet finding they have gained nothing as Sochi may well discover.
It is quite clear that the Sochi organisers never really considered this question let alone come up with a satisfactory answer. This explains their bewildering slogan: Hot, Cool, Yours. The Russian explanation that this represents the country’s national character seems another example of some of the mystification that has surrounded the Sochi Games.
Vladimir Putin who helped secure the Games, his intervention in Guatemala when the International Olympic Committee took the decision in 2007 was decisive, clearly sees Sochi 2014 as a way of telling the world Russia is back on the world state. But the way Sochi has gone about it, the result could well be that the image of Russia far from being reincarnated will be much worse than it was before Sochi and the world at large will feel this is still the old Russia of Leonid Brezhnev, unable to organise anything except Gulags.
Yet to say the Sochi Games are badly organised is clearly not true. Ask the athletes and administrators and to a man and woman they will tell they are brilliantly organised, just what they wanted.
This was well put to me by Craig Reedie, the British vice President of the IOC. I had asked him if he was bothered by the dreadful media Sochi was getting, both as regards the facilities and the security.
His response was: “I can only tell you that having been around the two villages that have been built here, they are absolutely outstanding. Athletes are as comfortable as they have ever been. Security is intense, but it’s not obtrusive. It works and people are used to it. I found myself in a slightly unusual position yesterday coming from the mountain village where I was security checked on the way out as well as on the way in, which is slightly unusual. But it’s being done and it’s being done politely. The weather has been absolutely superb. The facilities for the athletes are world class by anybody’s standards.”
You may expect a leading light of the IOC, which gave Sochi the Games, to say that. But Reedie is far too experienced an administrator to indulge in hyperbole. And it must be said the quality of the athletes’ accommodation surpasses that in many previous games. As the Russian athletes who took part in the 1980 Lake Placid Games have tartly pointed out, they were put up in accommodation that the Americans have since turned into prisons.
Yet reading the world’s press, and not just the Americans, the image of Sochi that emerges is of the old Russia of commissars laying down the law, contemptuous of those they trample on and of hotels that make the accommodation at Glastonbury look plush. And while we journalists are often accused of making things up poor accommodation in Sochi has been a fact and I have myself experienced it.
I was booked in a place called Russkiy Dom. I was under the impression this was a hotel. However it turned out to be an area of the combined size of Hyde Park and Green Park. Except this was not beautiful greenery but a vast fenced area which contained a number of buildings each of which turned out to be a hotel. They each had a different name and none of them was called Russkiy Dom. My hotel was called Sapfir and it was only after much effort I found this out. Even then after a couple of days I was still getting lost as there were no signs for the hotel within the fenced off area of Russkiy Dom.
As for the rooms, they were furnished so sparsely that I suspect first year university students would reject them. My room started off with having no soap, no wastepaper basket and no bedside lamp. All of this eventually arrived but after much complaining and over several days. There was a phone but it never worked. So when the reception wanted to inform me of anything someone came up and knocked on the door. And plumbing arrangements meant I was woken up one morning at 4am with my bathroom about to flood and had to shave in the bath tub. Little did I think in going to Russia for the winter games that I would end up emulating my cowboy heroes from the old cowboy versus Red Indians movies of my youth. I never had the much publicised loo problems of some American journalists but when I went to the Park Inn in the town of Sochi I found loos which did not have toilet seats. And this is in a four star hotel next to Sochi’s railway station.
Now you may say we in the media always moan. But we media are also part of the general public, albeit a rather specialised part, and while Sochi has looked after the competitors and the officials very well it has clearly not much cared for the general public. To an extent you can get away with it in a winter games, more so one in Russia where spectators from abroad are not numerous.
That will not be the case in Brazil. Despite the distance for many in Europe and other parts of the world, significant numbers of the fans of the countries that have qualified will travel there. This makes it all the more necessary for the Brazilians to make sure they are provided facilities that stand comparison to accepted world standards.
And this is where they also need to ask themselves: is this World Cup meant to tell the world that a new Brazil has emerged which is more than Pele and the Samba and is ready to punch its way on the world stage? Or is this a World Cup for home consumption meant to make Brazilians feel good about themselves?
Sochi 2014 gives the impression that the Games are about Russians talking to themselves. So all the media rooms in the Main Press Centre have names of the literary greats of Russia: Pushkin, Dostoevsky with the press centre in the mountains named after Gorki. All of this is very evocative for the Russians, but I am not sure it has made much of an impression on the world’s media. When your hotel room could mean an uncomfortable night the fact that the press conference is being held in a room named after the man who composed Eugene Onegin, arguably the greatest novel in verse, cuts little ice.
We have already seen during the Confederation Cup that many Brazilians are far from thrilled about the money being lavished on the World Cup. Against this background the need to make sure Brazil 2014 has clearly defined goals and has a very precise idea about its target audience becomes very important. Otherwise the danger is we shall return from Brazil feeling that this journey to the land of the beautiful game was not really worthwhile. And that given what Brazil means to football that would be such a shame.