SOCHI, Russia — The torch relay mirrored the Olympic Games that it was designed to celebrate, a bold and grandiose vision that no previous host country had the means or perhaps the madness to attempt. The fiery symbol of the Olympic spirit had been carried to the top of the continent’s highest mountain and dropped to the bottom of the world’s deepest lake, transported to the North Pole and launched into space.
Problem was, the red-trimmed chrome device lost its flame dozens of times along the way, including at the Kremlin, where a guard reignited it with a cigarette lighter. But on Friday night, after 123 days and 56,000 kilometers, the torch will arrive inside Fisht Olympic Stadium and the XXII Winter Games, the most costly and controversial in history, will be opened by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the unlikeliest spot in this gigantic and gelid nation — a Stalinist summer resort on the shore of the Black Sea not far from the Caucasus region that has been torn by war since the Soviet Union broke apart more than two decades ago.
It is not only the first time the Winter Games have been held in the country that could serve as the planet’s permafrost freezer but also the first time that they’ve been staged in a subtropical site where everything had to be created from scratch at a cost of more than $50 billion, more than what Beijing spent on its supersized Summer Games in 2008.
“The fact that we managed to build this is a big victory,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Thursday, “and as we often say in Russia, do not judge the victors.”
Yet no Olympics since Moscow’s summer version in 1980 have been as loudly condemned by critics. Those Games were marred months before they began by the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan that provoked an American-led boycott by 65 countries and a counter-boycott of the Los Angeles Games by the Soviet bloc in 1984.
These Games, which Putin has made his own, have been at the center of a chorus of detractors who said that the government’s disregard for human rights and a recent law banning “gay propaganda” have made a mockery of the Olympic ideals, that the massive construction of sporting venues, housing, and roads has been an environmental disaster, and that domestic Islamic terrorists likely would target athletes and spectators.
In the wake of two suicide bombings in Volgograd in December and earlier vows by rebel leader Doku Umarov to disrupt Games that he called “Satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors,” the Russian government has deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and police to create what it called a “ring of steel” around the Olympic region.
A major reason for the enormous security presence, Putin said Wednesday, was the Boston Marathon bombings allegedly carried out by two Islamic brothers with roots in the Caucasus.
“We can guarantee the safety of people as well as any other government hosting any mass event,” said Kozak. “I am sure that the security level in Sochi is no worse than in New York, Washington, or Boston.
“All countries have a database about terrorists and, based on the information we have received, Sochi is under no more threat than any other city on the planet. I think that the level of fear should be lower.”
Security also was heavy two years ago in London, where suicide bombers attacked the transit system the day after the city was awarded the Summer Olympics in 2005, and in 2002 in Salt Lake City less than five months after Islamic terrorists destroyed New York’s twin towers and killed 3,000 people.
“We had such a high-threat scenario . . . just after 9/11, and there was really heavy security,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. “But it was a very good Olympic atmosphere and the same will happen here because of the concept of these Games. I think the atmosphere can really flourish.”
Yet the mood on the eve of the Opening Ceremony was apprehensive after the US Department of Homeland Security warned airlines that toothpaste tubes could be used to smuggle explosives and subsequently banned all liquids on carry-on luggage on nonstop flights to Russia.
The Australian Olympic Committee already had told its athletes not to venture beyond the Olympic perimeter, and the USOC had advised its 230 athletes to be prudent about wearing their star-spangled gear around town.
“We have let them know some people don’t consider Americans their favorites,” said chief executive officer Scott Blackmun, “so if you wear non-American attire, it would attract less attention.”
The Games, which are expected to be seen by an estimated 3 billion viewers around the world, actually began on Thursday with the new team figure skating event and qualifying rounds in slopestyle snowboarding. But the Opening Ceremony, which will feature athletes from more than 80 countries — from Albania to first-timer Zimbabwe — will be the showcase for Putin’s improbable winter wonderland by the beach.
It may have been built as quickly as a Potemkin village but is meant to be Putin’s permanent playground where millions of tourists will marvel at a hockey rink surrounded by palm trees.
“Sochi will become a world-class resort,” Kozak predicted, “operating all over the year.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.