SOCHI, Russia — Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, was recently profiled in a book titled, “The Man Without a Face.” The author, Masha Gessen, tells how the former KGB officer rose to power on the flawed premise that he was the ideal man to present his country’s progressive, democratic agenda to the West.
In 2007, Putin traveled to Guatemala City and showed Russia’s best face to the world. He delivered an impassioned speech to the International Olympic Committee on behalf of his country’s 2014 Winter Olympics bid. Putin spoke in three languages, including English, which he rarely does in public.
Putin’s arguments were persuasive enough. In a close, controversial vote, the IOC awarded the Games to Sochi, a city in the southernmost part of Russia, over Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea.
When the choice became official, Putin said it “wasn’t just a recognition of Russia’s sporting achievements, but a judgment of our country.”
Skeptics, and there are many, judged the choice as another reflection of a corrupt, politicized Olympic culture. But one thing is clear. These are seen as “Putin’s Games,” his chance to display Russia’s standing in the world, to flash its economic and sporting might a quarter century after the USSR’s fall.
But to some, they are also “Putin’s Follies,” an ill-conceived and executed expression of his hubris and ambition. Putin and other officials insist the Games will go off smoothly and be a triumph for Russia. But critics say he got more trouble than he bargained for.
In the runup to the 22nd Winter Games, Putin faced a torrent of issues:
First, there was the wisdom of holding them in Sochi, a sub-tropical beachside resort on the Black Sea that was a vacation retreat for leaders of the old Communist regime. You see palm trees along the coast, not snowmen.
The average temperature in February is about 44 degrees. It was pushing 50 last week. Sochi, a city of about 370,000, is the only place in Russia where it doesn’t normally snow. It is the warmest city to host a Winter Games. The weather is so balmy they had to import and stockpile snow from Finland.
The cost of these Games is estimated at $51 billion, more than all other Winter Olympics combined. It’s four times the original budget, about seven times more than Vancouver four years ago. The organizers spent roughly $9 billion on a 30-mile highway connecting the coastal and mountain venues.
There are well-documented reports of corruption, not uncommon to modern Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, reported that as much as $30 billion had been funneled to Putin’s pals in business. Gofur Rakhimov, the man credited with swinging the IOC vote to Sochi seven years ago, is reportedly a major figure in the world heroin trade.
Putin says it’s all an exaggeration. But there’s no disputing that he made things worse for himself last year by passing a law that banned “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” making his Olympics a target of protests by the international gay community.
Several world leaders will decline to attend the Games because of it. President Obama won’t be here. He made a statement by placing three openly gay athletes (Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow) among the delegation in the U.S. Olympic contingent.
Worst of all, of course, is the looming threat of a major terrorist attack, which has discouraged many tourists from coming and hurt advance ticket sales. There were three suicide bombings in Volgograd, which is 400 miles from Sochi, in December, leaving 34 dead.
Putin’s Olympics will take place 300 miles over the Caucusus Mountains from Chechnya, site of two bloody civil wars and an Islamist insurgent hot spot. Chechnya is the home of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
On Jan. 7, Sochi and its immediate suburbs were put in lockdown by a security initiative. More than 50,000 police and soldiers will be on duty in a so-called Ring of Steel. The U.S. will have a strong security force. It will seem like an armed camp in Sochi.
Many American athletes have decided not to have their families accompany them to Russia. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, Minnesota teammates who are on the U.S. men’s hockey team, told their families to stay away. So did Sabres defenseman Henrik Talllinder, who plays for Sweden.
“I think just because of the security and all the threats,” Tallinder said. “I think it’s wiser for” his wife and for him. “Then I can relax a little bit more.”
“If anything, it’s going to be secure,” said goalie Ryan Miller. “It’s not going to be like Vancouver, where everybody was wide open in a big, free city where you could go see. The good thing is people are scared of Putin. I know I am. So I’m going to behave myself.”
There’s speculation that along with being the most expensive Olympics, it could also be the biggest party. It’ll be tough to top Vancouver, but the Russians have waited a long time to host their first Winter Games. Despite the problems, there’s sure to be a sense of celebration and nationalistic pride.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, committee chief of the Russian organizing committee, said nine days ago that Sochi was “fully ready” and would deliver a safe, well-run Olympics. As of Monday, several of the media hotels were still not fully operational, but why quibble?
“History will be made,” Chernyshenko said.
History is always made at the Olympics, regardless of the surrounding issues. On Friday at 8:14 p.m. (to mark the year 2014), the Opening Ceremony will signal the official start of the Games. The torch will arrive, having visited Europe’s highest mountain, the North Pole and the International Space Station.
Eventually, it gets back to the sports, which unite people from all nations and keep fans absorbed in the sports and the personal stories of the athletes. Cut through the issues and this has a chance to be the best and most competitive Winter Olympics ever held.
There are an estimated 3,000 athletes from a record 88 nations competing in 98 sports, an all-time high. The IOC, continuing its effort to draw in a younger and more diverse audience, has added new events and significantly expanded the presence of women in the Games.
Slopestyle (both ski and snowboard), which is soaring in popularity, will make its debut for men and women. So will snowboard parallel slalom and ski halfpipe. The IOC has added mixed relays in luge and biathlon, and a figure skating team event. The women ski jumpers will be included after a long battle that made its way into the courtroom.
Amateurism is a faded notion here, like Communism. Permitting professionals has allowed Olympic athletes to compete into their athletic primes and beyond, creating a platform for more mature performances and compelling international rivalries. There are big names here:
Shaun White, a two-time gold medalist in snowboard halfpipe and the biggest name in his sport, is seeking his third straight gold in halfpipe.
Kelly Clark, the winningest snowboarder of all time and a former U.S. gold medalist in halfpipe, is back for a fourth Olympics.
Bode Miller will be competing in his fifth Olympics at age 36. Jaromir Jagr, who was on the Czech team that won hockey gold with Dominik Hasek in 1998, will be in his fifth Games; he turns 42 next Saturday.
Shani Davis, a two-time gold medalist in speedskating at 1,000 meters, looks to become the first American man to win gold in three Winter Games.
Kim Yu-Na of South Korea will try to become the first woman to win repeat gold in women’s figure skating since Katarina Witt in 1988.
Evgeni Plushenko, who has won medals in three straight Olympics, is back for a fourth and hoping to win again at age 31 in his native Russia.
Steven Holcomb is back to defend U.S. gold in the four-man bobsled, but without Buffalo native Steve Mesler, who retired to work full-time on Classroom Champions, his educational outreach program for kids.
Lolo Jones, who competed in two Summer Games as a hurdler, was chosen for the U.S. two-woman bobsled in a controversial decision.
Wang Meng, a four-time gold medalist in short-track speedskating, carried high hopes for China until a training injury knocked her out of the Games.
The U.S. men’s hockey team is back for another run at gold, with such familiar faces as Miller, Phil Kessel and two Western New Yorkers, Patrick Kane and Brooks Orpik.
The Canadian and American women are eager to resume their long-standing rivalry in women’s hockey. The Jamaican bobsled team is back and determined to perform respectably.
The Americans have come a long way from the dark days of 1988. After a poor Olympic showing in Calgary, a U.S. commission was formed, led by the late George Steinbrenner. They decided the U.S. needed more resources and money. In 1992, not a single American won a gold medal. But with the advent of professionalism and extreme sports, things soon got better.
Four years ago in Vancouver, the U.S. finished atop the list with a record 37 medals, nine gold. The Russians are a different story. Their fortunes began to decline along with the Soviet regime. Russia hasn’t led the Winter gold medal count since 1994, its first year as a separate nation.
In 2010, the Russians were an embarrassing 11th in medals. The once-proud hockey team got blitzed by Canada, 7-3, in the quarterfinals.
There is enormous pressure on the Russian athletes to do well on home soil and illuminate Russia’s resurgence as a world power, as Putin intended.
“The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world,” said Alex Ovechkin, whose determination to play for Russia helped prod the NHL to take part.
Russian sports officials were predicting great things a year ago, but they have toned down their expectations recently. But if they win a pile of medals and stave off any terrorist catastrophe, the Games will be remembered as a triumph for Putin.
“Other teams will come here to win or lose,” Vladimir Cherkasov, manager of Sochi ice rinks, said recently at ESPN.com. “We will win, or we will die.”