LONDON – Tuesday marks the 1-month countdown to the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a defining moment on the world stage for Russia and Vladimir Putin.
These games are among the most contentious in Olympic history, embroiled in controversy over terrorist threats, human rights, gay rights, cost overruns, corruption and environmental damage.
But is it all doom and gloom for Putin’s pet project?
Before the Olympic cauldron is lit on Feb. 7, it’s time for a look at the good and the bad for Russia’s first Winter Games.
Terror threat: The two bombings in Volgograd, which killed 34 people in suicide attacks on the rail station and a trolley bus, have escalated the security alarm. Sochi is located on the edge of the Caucasus region, where insurgents are seeking to create an Islamic state. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has urged his fighters to attack the Sochi Olympics, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” A massive security apparatus will be in place for the games, meaning painstaking metal-detector, X-ray and other checks for athletes, spectators and media. Ticketholders will need to obtain “spectator passes,” providing passport and other information to authorities. Email, phone and internet usage will reportedly be monitored by Russian security agencies. Putin is expected to attend many Olympic events, causing further security lockdowns. A heavy presence of Russian security forces could turn the games into an armed camp and undermine any prospect of a welcoming, festival atmosphere.
Gay rights: The Russian law banning gay “propaganda” has caused a furious backlash in the West and tarnished the country’s international reputation heading into the Olympics. While Russia has promised there will be no discrimination at the games, critics continue to bash the law. The IOC has been assailed for not pushing Russia to repeal the legislation. Some athletes are planning to make their views known in Sochi, either by speaking out or carrying or wearing symbols promoting gay rights. That’s something which could land athletes in trouble with the IOC, which prohibits any political gestures at the games.
Human rights: Russia’s human rights record remains under scrutiny. With the games approaching, Putin has launched a charm offensive of sorts – pardoning former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and granting amnesty for Pussy Riot punk band members and Greenpeace activists. He has even rescinded an order banning any demonstrations in or around the games. Critics call the moves window dressing. Will protest applications be granted? Will anyone dare come out to demonstrate? Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has accused Russian authorities of mistreating migrant workers and harassing activists and journalists.
Putin’s politics: Putin’s prickly relations with the West have soured any “feel-good” factor about the Olympics. Tensions with the U.S. and President Barack Obama grew after Putin granted temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Putin’s policies on Syria and Iran, and Russia’s backsliding on democratic reforms have antagonized Western leaders. For the first time since 2000, the U.S. delegation to the Olympics will not include a president, vice president or first lady. Obama is sending several openly gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King and figure skater Brian Boitano. French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck are not going to Sochi, either.
Weather worries: Sochi is a subtropical resort on the Black Sea. Temperatures on the coast, where the indoor ice events will be held, will be mild. That’s fine, but there is uncertainty over conditions in the mountains for the snow events. While there is already a good layer of snow in place, a spell of warm or wet weather could cause problems. As a precaution, organizers have stored up 450,000 cubic meters of snow. Also worth noting: flooding and avalanches are common in the region.
Record cost: $51 billion. That’s the overall price tag for the games, by far the most expensive in history, summer or winter, and more than three times the budget of the 2012 London Games. The cost includes the long-term investment in roads, tunnels, railways and ski facilities. Everything has been built from scratch as Russia seeks to turn Sochi into a year-round tourist destination. The costs have soared way above previous projections amid allegations of financial mismanagement, corruption and favors doled out to oligarchs and Putin’s friends.
So what’s the good news then?
Yes, there are things to look forward to. Here’s a sampling:
New sports: Twelve new events are on the sports program in Sochi, with women’s ski jumping perhaps the biggest attraction. Female jumpers are making their debut after being rejected for inclusion in Vancouver four years ago. In a nod to the young X Games generation, the IOC has also added ski halfpipe and ski and snowboard slopestyle events. Snowboard star Shaun White, aka the Flying Tomato, will unveil a new trick – a frontside double-cork 1440. It’s a variation of the Double McTwist 1260 he nailed at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Hockey fever: The NHL players are back. Hockey is the sport Russia really cares about and the host nation will be out to make amends after the disaster in Vancouver. The Russians failed to medal in hockey, knocked out in the quarterfinals by Canada. It was symbolic of Russia’s worst overall showing at a Winter Games, winning only 15 medals and finishing 11th in the table. Sochi will offer a chance of redemption for superstar Alex Ovechkin, who is desperate to lead Russia to its first Olympic title since a “Unified Team” of former Soviet republics took gold in Albertville in 1992. Of course, Canada and the United States might have something to say about that.
Ski stars: Alpine skiing features the anticipated returns of American stars Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller from knee injuries, though Vonn’s status remains uncertain. High-profile medal contenders include 18-year-old American Mikaela Shiffrin, as well as Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway and Tina Maze of Slovenia.
Compact layout: All the indoor venues and the stadium for the ceremonies are located in the Olympic Park in the coastal cluster. It’s possible to walk or take a short shuttle bus between all the venues. The mountain cluster is only about 45 minutes away. It’s a much more compact setup than previous games in Vancouver and Turin. Spectators can use a brand new train service to travel between the coast and the mountains.
The venues: They’re brand new, they’re ready and they’ll look great on TV. Gleaming arenas are in place for hockey, curling, speedskating and figure skating.
The boss: Dmitry Chernyshenko, a native of Sochi, is the affable head of the local organizing committee. The bespectacled Chernyshenko, who comes from the world of advertising, loves technology. He carries an iPad wherever he goes and is an enthusiastic user of Twitter ((at)DChernyshenko, www.twitter.com/DChernyshenko). He led Sochi’s winning bid for the games and has spent the last seven years getting the city ready for its big moment.
The stakes: National pride and Putin’s personal prestige are on the line. There’s simply too much at play for Russia not to make the games a success. Besides, once the competition begins, the athletes take center stage and the host nation begins winning medals, the atmosphere invariably takes off.
And finally: Hey, the mascots are kind of cute. See here: http://tinyurl.com/88kpwre .