An ambassadorial role in 1980 that was prescient of his future

The Russian ambassador, Mikhail Vanin, recalls how he was mobilised to work during the Moscow Olympics and how he expects his country to relish being hosts once again

Sporting enthusiasts around the world will be settling into their living rooms on Friday to watch the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Few are more excited than Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, who caught up with The Copenhagen Post to give his account of the coming spectacle.

The ambassador doesn’t shy away from enjoying sports and is particularly keen on cycling, alpine skiing and tennis. He also enjoys football, but as a spectator rather than a player. He describes himself as being sporting, “in mind and heart”, and is very much looking forward to the Sochi games.

“My favourite discipline is the alpine skiing followed by the biathlon, a discipline that Russians usually excel in, both in the men’s and the ladies,” he said.
“We are not so good in the downhill skiing, but it is beautiful to watch, and being a downhill skier myself, I can relate to what is happening on the slope. As a child I played a lot of ice hockey. It was a general discipline for young boys at schools in the Soviet Union.”

It is a big deal for Russia to host the Sochi Olympics and then the World Cup in 2018. Is this indicative of how far Russia has developed after the wall came down?

Yes, and it is also a sign of the readiness of Russia to host such massive sporting events. It points to improvements in infrastructure and that everything else is more developed and prepared for handling the challenges associated with hosting such an event.

Being such a massive and diversely populated nation, what does it mean to the Russian people as a whole?

It is a national project with real meaning, just like it was 34 years ago [for the 1980 Summer Olympics], and of course all of us are excited that we are hosting the Winter Olympic Games. It is very interesting that the Summer Olympic Games in 1980 was the 22nd and this winter games is also number 22.

Do you have any favourite memories of the Olympic Games – a particular moment that sticks in your mind?

I was 20 years old when I witnessed the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. I was a student and nearly all of us were mobilised to help organise the games. We were selling things on the streets like soft drinks or water. We became street vendors during this time, and it was very interesting to do this job, which we were even paid a little bit to do. I remember how colourful, hectic and interesting it was for us young people.

There has been a lot of focus in the media around the world on gay rights issues in Russia. Do you expect this to become an issue in Sochi?

Definitely not. President Putin proclaimed that the Olympic area will be a completely free territory for everyone, whether people are lesbian, gay or heterosexual. All of us will be forthcoming and there will be no restrictions or discrimination. We see these questions raised some times in the western media, but they are not raised in a fair and truthful way about how the situation is in Russia. All people can do whatever they want – the only thing that is prohibited is the display of homosexuality in front of minors and the law also prohibits paedophilia. This is the real picture. You will see that Sochi will have a very friendly and peaceful atmosphere for sportsmen of all sexual orientation. We shouldn’t mix politics with the Olympic games.

Following the terror attacks in Volgograd in December, how much of an issue is security to the organisers and the government?

This is a serious issue. First of all I have to say that I am completely sure that it will be a very safe Olympic Games and our law enforcement agencies are very well prepared for the security challenges. Security will be very high during the games in Sochi and the Olympic park and premises. We are certain that it will be the safest place in the world during this time. There will be around 40,000 police personnel deployed in and around Sochi. This issue is very important for us, and our security preparations began a few years ago.

The location itself, on the Black Sea next to the Caucasus Mountains, is quite unique. Will it be an Olympic Games to remember?

It promises to be a very picturesque show in general from the opening ceremony through to the closing ceremony. Numerous well-trained volunteers are prepared for this period, and they will promote comfortable conditions for the sports people and visitors. I am sure that people and participants will remember this Olympic Games for a long time as something very special.