The Kremlin has been accused of cyber attacks targeting the Tokyo and PyeongChang Games. Understanding how Russia’s own past Olympics are remembered can reveal the extent of reputational outcomes of the new scandal.
The list of nefarious actions attributed to the Kremlin – and, by association, Russia – in the past year alone includes: the poisoning of domestic opposition figure Alexei Navalny hacking of Western Covid-19 vaccine research; and interference in the 2020 US presidential election. Another recent scandal alleges Moscow-approved cyber attacks on the Tokyo 2020 and PyeongChang 2018 Olympics.
Cyber security experts detail the vast financial losses inflicted on their targets. But how can we assess the prospective reputational damage to the country from which these attacks appear to originate, and which, moreover, has been at the centre of a related doping affair? One way is to explore the public understanding of events previously sponsored by the regime in the context of this new scandal.
Cyber Attacks and the Legacy of Sochi 2014
To an uninformed observer, the Olympics may appear a curious target for cyber attacks. The allegations are not surprising, however, given the volatile relationship between contemporary Russia and the Olympics, which the country hosted in Sochi in 2014. The Games shifted from a platform for ‘breaking the ice of scepticism’ about Russia to an arena in which numerous international crises – including geopolitical war, doping and now cyber attacks – play out.
The Olympics have conventionally been understood as reputational projects for the sponsoring states. Increasingly, experts have been warning that audiences are aware these projects are aimed at ‘sportswashing’ the hosts. Instead of popular international attraction, or soft power, various crises can lead to ‘soft disempowerment’ through such events, damaging the host’s reputation.
The aftermath of the Sochi Olympics, for example, led experts to refer to these Games as a ‘forgotten’ event, where the potential for attraction remained unfulfilled. Moreover, the fallout from the Sochi doping scandals is seen as a pretence for the recent intransitive attacks on subsequent Olympics. In the past few months, stories detailing the extent of the hacking scandal have been shared online thousands of times across various platforms and made headlines in leading outlets.
Nevertheless, the effects of attraction from Sochi 2014 live on. A small-scale study, conducted by the author, explored English-language Twitter exchanges, captured between 17 and 22 October 2020 to coincide with the breaking of the cyber attack story. It helps to illustrate how the public reflects on both the Russian Olympics and the new crisis. The analysis revealed that just under half of these tweets primarily reflected on the sporting results and media coverage of the Games. About a quarter of the tweets dealt with the new cyber attack reports, Russia’s harmful international interference and ongoing doping, or other stories discussing Russia in a negative light. Under 10% of exchanges positively or neutrally reflected on the fact the 2014 Games took place in Sochi, while the remaining 20% dealt with personal updates and other events, like the recent F1 race in Sochi.
Twitter, itself a platform under scrutiny because of suspected and widely discussed malign activity by Russian state-sponsored actors, cannot be considered as representative of the wider public’s perceptions and understanding of political affairs. Some of the captured responses in the study could have been inauthentic, and, as ever, any insights generated from it should be treated with caution. The platform is, however, an important part of public life today. Careful analysis of user-generated content on Twitter and similar platforms or forums can help to explain how the public interprets contemporary politics.
Public Understanding of Political Crises and Sporting Events
As the hacking scandal emerged, sharp Twitter critiques of the Russian state included observations like ‘Russia wants every Olympics to fail just so they can claim Sochi-2014 was the last successful Olympics’. Such damning reflections were accompanied by innocent posts from former Olympians reminiscing about their experience at the 2014 Games. Figure-skating fans recalled the performances of their favourite athletes in Sochi with pleasure, while hockey fans reflected on the play-by-play commentary from the 2014 tournament.
Even small-scale attempts to assess the nature of public debate at a time of high-profile scandals point to the fact that political crises do not completely dominate interpretations of such events. Audiences of these projects, even long after their conclusion, serve as important actors in shaping the legacies of sporting events and related crises.
Politicians, cyber security agencies and intelligence actors are working to establish the links between the attacks and Russian elites, determine the extent of the damage and formulate appropriate responses. But more needs to be done to assess the nexus between public understanding of political crises and popular sporting events. One Twitter user suggested that ‘it’s insane that Russia plans attacks like these and the response is simply a shrug’.
Despite multiple scandals, the 2014 Winter Olympics are not completely forgotten, and perhaps surprisingly, some positive reputational benefits for Russia endure, playing a part in the way new crises are interpreted. The effects of soft power and ‘disempowerment’ coexist, but the imbalance between the two can only be understood through further research.
Not surprisingly, in Russia, sceptical voices emerged in response to the recent reports. Russian-language tweets shared since the publication of hacking reports included individuals reflecting on Sochi 2014 with a sense of nostalgia and national pride. The enduring reputational effects of events like this and the 2018 World Cup appear much more pronounced for the Kremlin at home than they are internationally. Yet, the diverse nature of international public reflections on such events and their political implications need to be acknowledged, as they also inform public attitudes to new crises.
Notwithstanding the upholding of the formal ban on Russian participation in major upcoming competitions by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in December 2020, Russia is still slated to take part in and co-organise the rescheduled Euro 2020 championship. Some earlier rumours even suggested the country might serve as the sole host of the prominent tournament. The CAS ruling also enables Russian Olympians to compete in the postponed Tokyo Games – albeit as ‘neutral athletes’. Furthermore, a popular wartime song could replace the national anthem with the obvious aim of catalysing domestic patriotism. How international audiences will react to these measures remains to be seen.
One thing is clear: major sporting events will continue to be an arena for political debates surrounding Russia and an extension of geopolitical confrontation and cooperation. The reputational outcomes of crises such as the hacking scandal and corresponding sporting events need to be analysed through nuanced reviews of public perceptions over time. This will help inform and improve political responses.
Vitaly Kazakov is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester and a former Research Associate for the ‘Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere: From Cold War to “Information War”?’ AHRC project.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.