Sochi Olympics TV moment: Costas, Remnick, Posner on what Putin wants

A view of the Olympic rings outside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia.
(Loic Venance / AFP / Getty Images)

[Note: This is part of an ongoing series documenting the Sochi Olympics from a TV perspective. Every morning of the Games, we’ll look at a key moment from the previous day that NBC captured, elevated, honored, bungled or otherwise reported in a notable way, as only the most televised event on the planet can be covered.]

Russian Viktor Plushekno and his tasseled teammates rallied the home crowd with an early lead in the new event of team figure skating. But as the spotlight turned to the 2014 Sochi Olympics -- before the opening ceremony; if that isn’t a surreal harbinger we don’t know what is -- all-around Olympics guide/moral compass Bob Costas sought to offer some political context.

Convening New Yorker editor David Remnick and Russian American journalist Vladimir Posner -- as Russia experts, both are consultants for NBC at these politically charged Games -- Costas walked through the issues Russian President Vladimir Putin faces away from the ice and snow.

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After asking what the Russian leader was really after, Costas elicited from Remnick: “What Vladimir Putin wants is to reassert Russia on the world stage, and the Olympics is the greatest pop-culture stage there is.” Remnick then reminded U.S. viewers that Putin “is an autocrat, not a democrat,” a caveat that explains (and frustrates).

But Posner cautioned that it’s not exactly global acceptance Putin is after. The Russian leader, he said, “cares more about how people in this country feel,” and that can be judged by a looser standard. “If there’s no terrorist attack, he will be very happy,” Posner said.

And besides, Remnick said, “resentment is in many ways the animating [force] for Putin on the world stage.” So every time you criticize Putin, you’re actually fueling him. Cheery.

How to cover the many delicate issues surrounding these Olympics will be a question for NBC, whose executives have said they want to leaven the feel-good humanist stories with more substantive content. If Thursday’s introduction was any indication, there will be a fair helping of that.


Though it was the new event of slopestyle -- Torah Bright but no Shaun White -- that took the mountain spotlight Thursday,  Costas was asking about Russian lawmakers’ passage of an anti-LGBT law (phrased rather roundabout-ishly as “passing a law billed as repressive to the gay community”) and what that meant at the Games.

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Posner said that although he thinks Putin’s government will be careful to protect gay athletes, he added, depressingly, that after the Games things will revert to a more hostile state. “This is a homophobic country. I would guess that 85% of the country is really, really homophobic,” he said of the locals.

As the cheering for Team Russia at the team figure skating program suggested, those natives are looking generally for big medal counts. But they have their priorities too.

“If the [men’s] hockey team wins, it doesn’t matter [about] everything else,” Posner said, referring to an event in which Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002. Then he quipped, “If the hockey team loses, it doesn’t matter [about] everything else.”


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