The 123-day Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay offers a unique opportunity for Russia to establish a new national identity on the world stage.


It remains to be seen if the Sochi Olympics is able to improve the controversial image of Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti / Mikhail Voskresensky

With the official launch of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay in a dramatic ceremony in Moscow’s Red Square on Oct. 7, Vladimir Putin and Russia unofficially also kicked off a four-month rebranding campaign that will culminate in Sochi in February 2014.

Hosting mega-sporting events watched by hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people around the world is now the way nations re-brand themselves on the global stage – think of Beijing in 2008South Africa in 2010, or Rio in 2014. For better or worse, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will also determine the Russian “brand” for the world.

Is Russia a nation that is once again ready to strut on the world stage as an equal partner with the West, or one that will come up short, showing once and for all, that a nation can’t rise to the top amidst large-scale corruption, an amazing wealth inequality gap, and concerns about inflamed ethnic tensions?

The only way Russia can successfully re-brand itself to the world is by displaying the rich, cosmopolitan flavor of the nation that spans a surprising number of ethnicities, religions, cultures, ideologies and belief systems. This is especially true, given that many in the West are already actively attempting to re-brand the Sochi Olympics as the Rainbow Olympics or the Surveillance State Olympics.

This is why the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay is so important – it truly is an opportunity for Russia to showcase its rich, cosmopolitan flavor to the world. Unlike Sochi itself, which many Russians will never visit, the Olympic Torch Relay will visit 83 regions of Russia, crisscrossing the nation so that 90 percent of the population will have a chance to see the Olympic Torch in person. It will be the longest, most extensive Olympic Torch Relay in history.

The Olympic Torch will travel by car, bus, motorcycle, boat, horse, train, plane, and, yes, Russian troika. It will feature a “who’s who” and “best of the best” of Russia. Some of these Olympic Torch Bearers are known only to Russians – like Olympic Champions Albert Demchenko and Irina Slutskaya – while others are instantly recognizable to the world, like Alex Ovechkin and Natalia Vodianova. In the era of Flickr and Instagram, these visuals matter – Westerners will be able to see Russia, not just read about it.

In just the first week of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch relay, the Olympic Flame has been paraded around Red Square, traveled through the Moscow underground metro, ascended to the highest point of the city, gone water-skiing and horseback riding, traveled in dragon boats along the Tver river, and been handled by star Olympians and famous Russian celebrities.

And that’s just the start – plans are for the Olympic Torch to ascend into outer space, to travel to the depths of the deepest freshwater lake in the world, climb the highest mountain peak in Russia, and peer into a volcano.

So far, so good.

However, the hard work is mostly ahead. It’s one thing to showcase the shiny modernity of Moscow to the world – where most of the nation’s wealth is now based – and it’s another thing entirely to showcase the rest of Russia to the world. Most Westerners probably think of Russia beyond the Urals as being a snowy “Dr. Zhivago”-like expanse of cold and misery.

And that’s why the discussion about Russian national identity is so important, and why it’s getting so much attention these days. In September, the10th anniversary meeting of the Valdai Club – attended by President Putin – was dedicated to the theme of Russian national identity, and involved the participation of nation branding experts, called in to help Russia determine what it is – and what it is not.

Russia has always been torn between West and East, Slavophile and Westernizer, and Sochi 2014 represents another important inflection point.

What, for lack of a better term, is the “Russian brand”?

The key to unlocking Russian identity may be the patchwork quilt that has become the official look of the Sochi 2014 winter games. The Sochi quilt represents all the various ethnic and cultural traditions of the vast Russian nation. As Bosco explains in its creative brief, "every patch was infused with the history and personality of traditional crafts from each of Russia's 89 regions... That is how we arrived at a modern, distinctive and unmistakeably Russian Look of the Games." 

The task for Russia is to transform all of this diversity into a point of pride and differentiation for Russia, the same way a marketer would take all the strengths of a brand and use it as part of a broader marketing campaign.

At a time when the West is determined to brand the Sochi Olympics as the Rainbow Olympics, the Sochi patchwork quilt should be Russia’s brand response. The patchwork quilt pattern, featured on all the Olympic merchandise sold by Bosco across Russia and worn by Olympic Torch Bearers as they travel around the nation, features a combination of colors and patterns so garish and so out-there that it actually works. It gets your attention.

And that’s all a marketer really wants. In short, the patchwork quilt of Sochi needs to replace the hammer-and-sickle of Communism and the double-headed imperial eagle as the new symbol of Russian national identity.

As sports marketing experts have pointed out, mega-sporting events can be an extremely useful tool for re-branding a nation. In the post-Soviet space, too, they have emerged as a powerful tool for re-establishing national identity and showcasing a nation's respect for universal norms. Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have all sought to host high-profile international sporting events.

And, after Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics, it will again be on the world stage – in 2018, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup. Sports mega-events already have a huge, built-in global audience (or, if you will, "consumers"). It’s up to Russia to make sure that the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay is the first leg of successful national branding campaign that continues up to and including both the Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi.

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