Russian Hockey Loss Transforms Putin's Olympics from Success to Disaster

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

In this Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev watch an ice hockey game between Russia and Slovakia at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)
Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press

What time do the closing ceremonies begin?

The Olympics, at least in terms of Russia's longstanding dream of winning a gold medal in men's hockey, are over. Russia lost, 3-1, to Finland in the quarterfinals on home ice, thereby ending both any chance at Olympic glory and every hope of finishing the Sochi Olympics on a high note.

In a Winter Games full of small Russian disasters, this one is huge.

Some even think the men's hockey defeat is one of the biggest Olympic disasters in Russia's history. During the second intermission of Wednesday's quarterfinal, American commentator Jeremy Roenick said that a loss to Finland at this stage of the event would be "the biggest failure in Olympic history I think for Russia."

Hey, J.R., the 1980 Soviet team called, and it wants its miracle back.

This loss in these Olympics has to be close, though, and bowing out in the quarterfinals after failing to earn a bye has everyone around the world wondering what exactly went wrong with that team.

It has, however, added a bit of delight to the vociferous anti-Putin contingent around the world.

That photo, by the way, was not taken during Wednesday's loss, but it still does a wonderful job of summing up the way most Russians must be feeling. Especially Putin.

The entire Sochi experiment has felt like a referendum on Russia as a world superpower, specifically Putin as its supercilious commandant. Until now, Putin has actually managed to come off pretty well with the focus of the entire world on him. He's been seen cavorting with Olympians at the Sochi nightspots. He's taking photos and shaking hands like he's Russia's biggest movie star, and, perhaps most importantly, he's been celebrating Russia's success at many of the Sochi Olympic venues.

The Russian Federation has had an incredibly impressive medal haul so far this Olympics, among the leaders in overall medals as of Wednesday, winning some marquee events as part of that tally. It really has turned out to be a great Games for Russia. Until now, at least.

Given the expectations over the last four years for the men's hockey team, the quarterfinals loss is such a debacle that everyone involved suddenly looks immensely foolish.

Consider this passage from the postgame Q&A with Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, according to Anton Troianovski of The Wall Street Journal:

Q: What future, if any, do you see for your own work and for your coaching staff? Because, you know, your predecessor was eaten alive after the Olympics—

A: Well then, eat me alive right now—

Q: No, I mean—

A: Eat me, and I won't be here anymore.

Q: But we have the world championship coming up!

A: Well then, there will be a different coach because I won't exist any more, since you will have eaten me.

The last two weeks have been headlined by story after story of the systematic and fundamental problems with how Russia has handled the Sochi Games—take a look at the ongoing #SochiProblems if you still have any questions about that—but the Russian organizers, and Putin himself, have been able to deflect the bad publicity and international ill will to seemingly enjoy their collective moment in the spotlight.

You think a couple of broken doorknobs and missing shower curtains were going to spook Putin? The man was able to sidestep the admission that surveillance cameras are in the showers, so I can't imagine any of the media or visitor complaints would bother him much. The stray-dogs situation, which was another knock on Sochi at the start of the event, has turned into something of a positive story, with several Olympians adopting as many puppies as they can fit in their carry-on bags.

Heck even the gay-rights issue, which dominated the press in advance of the Games, has been a non-issue internationally, save for a small and relatively quiet demonstration or arrest here and there.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press

It's all been a bit too easy for Putin the last 10 days. Until now.

The Telegraph's UK site had a headline after the Russia loss that read, "Sochi 2014: Dismay for Vladimir Putin as Russia crash out of Winter Olympics ice hockey tournament to Finland." In a way, the world sees this loss as Putin's, more than the athletic federation, the coaches or the players themselves.

A Feb. 14 story from Bloomberg's Stepan Kravchenko talked about how important the hockey gold was to Putin:

"I wanted to support it somehow, to give new birth to it," Putin said during a documentary on Russian state TV. He was shown playing, scoring and falling in a red jersey with number 11. In 2012 Putin went to play hockey after his inauguration ceremony. He now plays hockey several times a month, Peskov said.

Putin could get a boost should Russian athletes do well, especially if the hockey team has success, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Moscow-based Effective Policy Foundation.

So much for that boost. The result was a disaster.

Putin's disastrous day got contextually worse on Wednesday after news of 25 deaths in Kiev, Ukraine during a fight between police and protesters of, as Dan Bigman of Forbes put it, "increasing Russian domination in the former Soviet province":

Forbes named Putin the world’s most powerful man last year as the leader continued to concentrate his authority in the former Soviet Union. The Sochi Olympics were seen as his chance to showcase Russia’s full-force return as a power on the world stage, something it had lost over the past two decades.

As part of that reassertion of power, Putin has been ratcheting up pressure on former Soviet satellites and provinces like Ukraine, to stem their drift to the West. As Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych has grown closer to Russia in recent months, accepting billions in aid from Putin and turning from the EU, protestors took to the streets to rally against the changes.

As anyone could imagine, that kind of news might put a loss in a hockey game into perspective. Something tells me this loss, for that hockey team, defies perspective. Putin could probably figure out a way to spin a few dozen deaths. As horrible as it sounds, the hockey loss probably feels worse.

Yes, this was a very good Olympics for Russia, and for Putin. Until now. So when do the closing ceremonies begin? Then Russia can try to forget this ever happened.