MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia hailed its winning bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics on Thursday as proof of the country’s return to global prominence following a post-Soviet slump, and as a personal triumph for President Vladimir Putin.
Putin, a keen skier, spent two days in Guatemala this week lobbying International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to give the Games to Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“This is, without doubt, not just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country,” Putin said, moments after returning to Moscow.
“It is a recognition of our growing capability, first of all economically and socially.”
But the United States, which has sparred with Russia over issues from missile defense to the future of Serbia’s Kosovo province and claims Putin is squeezing democratic freedoms at home, sounded a discordant note.
“Well, it’s a proud moment for Russia and I am sure it’s a proud moment for him (Putin) so he can characterize it as he sees fit,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington.
“I’m not sure that the selection of Russia to host the Winter Olympics really, at this point, changes our view or others’ views — or concerns — about the direction of democracy and related issues ... human rights, respect for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and to be able to peaceably organize opposition democratic parties,” he said.
First elected in 2000, two years after an economic crisis that brought a sharp rouble devaluation and default on billions of dollars of debts, Putin has overseen strong economic growth driven by rising prices for Russia’s abundant oil and gas.
He has also helped restore Russia’s weight in international affairs, reversing years of decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Putin says he will step down next year.
But his newly-assertive Russia has found itself at odds with other countries on a number of fronts. A plan by Cold War rival the United States to base a missile shield in Eastern Europe is the latest issue to draw Moscow’s ire.
The pro-Kremlin speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament used the Sochi win to take a thinly-veiled swipe at the United States.
“Our victory has a political resonance,” said Boris Gryzlov in comments broadcast on Russian television.
“This is a confirmation that the world is not unipolar, that there are forces which support Russia, which is once again becoming a global leader.”
Russian television identified Putin’s contribution as key to Sochi winning the Games. The NTV television station, which is owned by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, described Putin’s speech as the “juiciest morsel” of the IOC’s session.
Russia’s bid was also helped by its new-found wealth, most of it generated by high world prices for Russia’s oil and gas exports. That allowed Putin to pledge $12 billion to fund the Games and associated infrastructure projects around Sochi.
Russia’s bid team spared no expense in wooing IOC delegates. It hired the consultants who worked on London’s successful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and shipped in an ice rink which it assembled near the venue in Guatemala City where delegates were deliberating.
The last time an Olympics was held on Russian soil was the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
The United States and some of its Western allies boycotted those games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but for many Russians it represented the high-water mark for their country’s power and global influence.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington