Back when they were little more than a five-ringed gleam in Vladimir Putin’s eye, the Sochi Olympics were already freighted with huge expectations.
Turning a Communist-era spa town into a Black Sea version of Miami Beach was just the tip of the iceberg. Russia was to set the bar for future Winter Olympic hosts on how to hold friendly, safe Games in cutting-edge facilities.
Sochi would not just make a statement that Putin’s Russia has arrived as a leading world power; the Games would validate the Russia Putin has molded in the 14 years since he came to power.
“Putin has invested some personal prestige in this, and has tried to make some personal promises that this one will result in the glory of Russia itself,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who was US ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
But just days before the Opening Ceremony, the image of the modern Russia emerging in the worldwide spotlight has revealed snafus, allegations of corruption, casual prejudice, and shabby service associated with the image of the old Soviet Union: backward, authoritarian, out of step, and out of touch.
“In Sochi we see developed Putinism in its full form,” Sestanovich said. “We see the bombast, we see the corruption, we see the hostility to foreigners, we see the attempt to jump historical stages to catch up.”
Instead of basking in worldwide appreciation for achieving his ambitious Olympic goals, the Russian president is finding himself on the defensive. Instead of fielding praise for his personal oversight of the high-speed rail links from shimmering Olympic venues to upscale shopping centers, Putin has been forced to fend off reports of massive cost overruns, cronyism, and graft.
As state-run television floods the airwaves with footage of cutting-edge arenas, residents of Sochi are complaining about infuriating traffic backups, chronic power outages, and environmental damage caused by heavy-handed official disregard for ordinary people.
Instead of a celebration of Russia’s economic might, the prelude to the Games has focused on a protest of Russia’s record on human rights, in particular a law that criminalizes public expression of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender relationships.
A number of Western leaders have shunned the Games, denying Putin the implicit confirmation he seems to crave — of membership in their club. President Obama has sent a delegation that pointedly includes prominent gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King.
That struck a nerve, said Masha Gessen, a Russian and American journalist and LGBT activist, and author of “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
“This is important,” Gessen said. “This is his party.”
That Putin was blindsided by the powerful and negative international reaction to the law, Gessen said, speaks volumes about his ability to gauge public opinion outside Russia.
The democracies of Northern Europe and North America, among the most tolerant societies for LGBT rights, supply many of the athletes, and compete for the lion’s share of medals, at the Winter Games.
Russia’s law forms the underpinnings of what Gessen called Russia’s first “national idea” in 25 years since the end of Soviet Communism.
“Russia is the light that promotes traditional values as opposed to the darkness coming from the West, protecting the Russian Orthodox family against the ultimate enemy, which happens to be gays and lesbians,” she said.
Russian officials’ tone-deaf response to the outcry — for example the assertion by Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, when asked by the BBC about gays, that “We do not have them in our city” — has only made matters worse.
Putin in a recent interview with Russian and Western television reporters defended the law, noting that some American states have laws that attempt to ban gay sex.
“Anyway, we have got the message,” he said. “And I am telling you that none of our guests will have any problems.”
Beyond the political disconnect between Russia and the West over gay rights, Sochi always promised to be an Olympic project with a high degree of difficulty, thanks to its location in the warmest part of a country famous for its bitter cold, a few hundred miles from the woodland bases of Islamic terrorists who have vowed to cover these Games in blood.
The estimated $51 billion price tag, the most expensive Olympics ever held, and more expensive than the last 21 Winter Games combined, was far greater than the $12 billion Putin predicted would be spent back in 2007.
Official explanations have varied from justification of the remarkable cost of installing state-of-the-art security and transportation routes to make the Games safe and well run, to Putin’s bland assertion that no more than $7 billion was spent.
Two recent reports by opposition leaders have instead asserted that the cost of Sochi was bloated by the lack of fair competition and the secret doling out of contracts to Putin insiders. The authors of a report last May asserted that $30 billion had been stolen, a claim denied by the Russian government.
On Thursday, ABC News reported that Russia secured the 2014 Games with help from Russian businessman Gafur Rakhimov, whom US authorities assert is tied to heroin trafficking. Rakhimov, who is under criminal indictment in Uzbekistan, confirmed that he played a role in helping Russia through his contacts in Central Asian Olympics organizations.
Despite the massive, state-run effort to modernize Sochi in time for the Olympics — “It’s as though [former Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin decided to build Las Vegas, and all at once,” Sestanovich quipped — workers are still hastily putting on the finishing touches. Some hotels lack hot water, and there are no cafeterias or toilets for workers in some Olympic venues.
Entering Sochi is like crossing a border between two countries, with extensive searches and lines of cars that stretch for miles.
In another society, the traffic snarls, severe restrictions on movement, and other inconveniences might be front-page news. But the Kremlin’s control over the mass media outlets where most Russians get their news ensures that only a positive message will get out, even if people do not necessarily believe it, or read information on the Internet that contradicts it.
“It is universally assumed that corruption is pervasive and nothing can be done about it,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “A solid majority of Russians prefer the status quo to change even if they are not happy with what they see around them. There’s a very strong sense that ‘change’ — especially political turmoil caused by whistle-blowers and troublemakers — is likely to make things worse, not better.”
Sochi, of course, does present a challenge that goes beyond the threat to Putin’s international prestige: The possibility of terrorist attacks, a concern increased by recent reports of “black widow” suicide bombers trying to infiltrate the city and an ominous video purporting to be made by the suicide bombers who killed 34 people in Volgograd, a major city 400 miles inland from Sochi.
Russian organizers have assembled a massive security presence and implemented a lockdown of the Olympic village and venues that Sochi’s Olympics chief said last week made it the world’s “most secure venue.”
Analysts have suggested that any terrorist would probably be focused on softer targets away from the heavily guarded Olympic venues. But Putin has proven able to not just weather deadly attacks in the past; he has used them to justify greater concentration of power in the Kremlin. And recent attacks, Lipman said, have been met with the same “general acquiescence and the status-quo mentality.”