Putin's Olympics: Russian leader's legacy could depend on these Games

American snowboarder Shaun White gets air at the Extreme Park at Rosa Khutor Mountain. The building of 12 new venues has helped make Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever - winter or summer.
American snowboarder Shaun White gets air at the Extreme Park at Rosa Khutor Mountain. The building of 12 new venues has helped make Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever - winter or summer. (   Getty Images)
Posted: February 05, 2014

In Sochi, the Black Sea resort hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, there are 24 varieties of palm trees. And if, for his entrance at Friday's opening ceremonies, some of their fronds were scattered at Vladimir Putin's feet, few would be surprised.

Whether ultimately triumphal or tragic, the Sochi Games are Putin's miracle. The Russian leader, having overcome logistical, political, and historical hurdles to land his nation's first Winter Olympics, has become its face.

"Has any Winter Olympic Games in history been so identified or attached to a national leader as these Games are to Mr. Putin?" asked Andrew Kuchins, who heads the Russia-Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "These Games are very, very personal for him."

It was Putin, after all, who in 2007 pulled off one of the great upsets in Olympic history, securing the worldwide winter spectacle for a subtropical summer resort in a dangerously unstable region.

Now, seven years later, his legacy could depend on the success or failure of the event that so clearly bears his signature.

Should there be serious disruptions, most notably one or more of the attacks regional terrorists have promised, Putin's narrative of a modern, efficient, and secure Russia will be overshadowed and domestic discontent likely exacerbated.

But if the billions he poured into bold new venues, upgraded Soviet-era transportation systems, and a massive security apparatus result in a safe and successful Olympics, history could drape a gold medal around Putin's reputation.

The controversial, camera-hogging president will be at center stage on Friday when the Olympic torch is ignited and thousands of athletes from 88 nations march into newly enclosed Fisht Olympic Stadium.

The construction of that spectacular setting plus 11 other new venues have helped make Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever - winter or summer. Its estimated $51 billion cost is a staggering $7 billion more than Beijing spent to stage three times as many events in 2008.

On paper at least, Sochi appears to be one of the most conveniently created Games ever, with all of its facilities located in two locales less than an hour apart.

The athletes' villages, Olympic Stadium, and indoor arenas are tightly packed along the Black Sea, while all the mountain sports will be contested at Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains.

In the run-up to his Olympics, Putin has frequently been photographed skiing at Krasnaya Polyana, which in the words of Sochi's organizers is now "a world-class mountain ski-resort center."

A city of about 335,000, Sochi historically has been a popular summer retreat for Russia's elite. Stalin built his favorite dacha there. It is that nation's California, flanked on one side by beaches and on the other by soaring mountains.

"You can swim in the sea in the morning and then go skiing into the mountains that afternoon," said Kuchins. "You don't have to drive three or four hours."

Scenically at least, it should provide a fitting backdrop for the world's athletes, who for the next 21/2 weeks will be competing in 98 events in 15 sporting disciplines.

The best known of them will include American snowboarder Shaun White, South Korean figure-skater Yuna Kim, and Russian hockey star Alexander Ovechkin.

Every last salchow and ski run, of course, will be transmitted to America via NBC and its myriad communication platforms. The Comcast-owned network paid $775 million for those rights.

Concerned about the region's mild winter - temperatures in Sochi were in the 50s last week - organizers have stored tons of snow in refrigerated reservoirs as insurance.

Meanwhile, concerns about Sochi's security also have heated up.

Talk of the athletes and their prospects has been drowned out in recent weeks as the pre-Olympic buzz has focused instead on various terrorist threats.

Since Munich in 1972, security concerns have been a major component of any Olympics, but Sochi's proximity to the region's separatist and Islamist turmoil has raised more alarms than ever.

"You have a real terrorist threat here," said Juan C. Zarate, a national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration, at a briefing on the topic last month at CSIS's headquarters in Washington.

"These aren't just imaginings of the sort of one-off threats that have to be chased down, as the U.S. often has to do. . . . This is a real terrorist threat that exposes athletes, sponsors, and U.S. citizens that are going to attend."

Putin, apparently eager to showcase his achievements in Russia's ongoing battle against the region's separatist and Islamic insurgencies, took a huge gamble by locating his Olympics so near the simmering North Caucasus. And at the heart of many of those threats, as with nearly everything else involving these Sochi Games, is Putin.

"The terrorist groups led by the Caucasus Emirates and their affiliates, but also central Asian groups, have the clear intent to try to disrupt the Sochi Olympics or at least to embarrass the Russians, and in particular, Vladimir Putin, who has personalized the Olympics," Zarate said.

Putin has responded with a massive show of force. As many as 60,000 Russian troops will be stationed in and around Sochi. The number of security checkpoints is unprecedented. And according to news reports from nearby Chechnya and Dagestan, hotbeds of Islamist extremism, young men with radical ties have been disappearing.

While the large military presence will provide a visible Olympic shield, the troops are no guarantee against security lapses.

According to news reports, a notorious female terrorist from Chechnya being sought was recently spotted in Sochi. If true, it is a stunning failure, since the wanted woman has both a severe limp and a four-inch facial scar.

In 2004, two female Chechen suicide bombers blew up an airliner headed for Sochi, getting past airport security by bribing a guard.

"The system can be set up to focus on these kinds of threats, but it only takes one person, one corrupt guard who's willing to look the other way to have the entire thing come apart," said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of CSIS's Russia-Eurasia Program.

All of which makes Putin's successful 2007 sales pitch to the International Olympic Committee even more remarkable.

Seven years ago when the IOC gathered in Guatemala City to select a 2014 locale, Sochi was a longshot, widely viewed as the likely runner-up to South Korea's Pyeongchang.

The city had unsuccessfully bid for the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games. Those failures were blamed on an aging Soviet-era infrastructure that Putin has been hell-bent on updating ever since.

Russia's only previous Olympic host experience had been the 1980 Summer Games, an event greatly diminished by the American-led boycott that followed the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

But the Russian president flew to Guatemala, purchased a home for his brief stay and pleaded fervently to the IOC in both English and French.

In making his case, Putin pointed out that while Russia had won more medals at Winter Games than any other nation, it had never hosted one.

Knowing that many IOC delegates were devotees of the Olympics' Greek origins, he also noted that ancient Greeks had once lived near Sochi and that it was in the surrounding Caucasus where the mythological Prometheus was punished for giving the world fire.

It worked. Putin swayed enough delegates that, by a narrow 41-37 vote, Sochi got the bid.

Since then, despite a stagnant economy that has bred considerable discontent with his rule, Putin has made the Olympics the focal point of his duties.

"It was a very risky decision [for the IOC to award these games to Sochi]," said Dmitri Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Organizing Committee. "But Russia needed such a project to unite the nation."


Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick will be covering his eighth Olympic Games. The 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, who first covered the Winter Games at Nagano in 1998, will tell tales of local athletes pursuing gold, as well as national stories at the heart of the event. Read his blog during the Games at www.inquirer.com/olympics



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