Vlad the Unveiler keeps the Sochi mirth bubbling

Unintentionally , Russian President Vladimir Putin is providing comic relief. MATTHEW STOCKMAN / Getty
Unintentionally , Russian President Vladimir Putin is providing comic relief. MATTHEW STOCKMAN / Getty
Posted: February 13, 2014

Who's Sochi now? Chatter all you want about skaters, skiers, and ski-and-shooters, but these are the Putin Olympics.

There appears to be mounting evidence that he's a fictional character, a parody of an all-powerful czar supported by a band of Russian oligarchs. (A redundancy, that. Is there any other kind?) If Putin did not exist, surely some absurdist novelist would have to create him.

There's shirtless Putin on a horse. Shirtless Putin fishing. Shirtless Putin shooting stuff. He's Vlad the Unveiler. Shirtless Putin would be a far more memorable Olympics mascot than the leopard, hare, or bear.

Of equal fascination is Putin's putative extraordinarily pliant plaything, former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, who was miraculously tapped as one of the final Olympics torchbearers.

The Putin story dominates, especially his insistence on staging the Games in a region where temperatures are averaging in the high 50s. The Winter Olympics present a challenge, drawing large audiences when only a few nations are in the hunt. After four days of competition, China - China! - has captured one medal, while Norway is already lousy with hardware.

These Olympics' true competition rests in complaining. Here, the field is wide open. At $51 billion, $39 billion over the initial budget, the Sochi games are the most expensive of all time, with Russian taxpayers picking up most of the tab. By comparison, Mother Jones' website points out, it costs a negligible $2.5 billion to travel to Mars, though you wouldn't want to host the Games there.

Medals should be awarded for the criticism of accommodations, which makes Yelp seem like a love letter. The Internet is flooded with videos and selfies of Ikea-like beds more suitable for toddlers than strapping athletes, undrinkable drinking water (a curious viscous yellow), communal toilets with no dividers, busted door handles, and Hulk-ripped bathroom doors due to busted door handles. (Give bobsledder Johnny Quinn a medal!)

By all means, feel free to watch NBC for all the pandering, the edited and forced narratives worthy of the Soviet Union, but the uncensored comedy lives on the Web.

While Putin was staging his $51 billion show, a chance for Russia to shine, he was subjected to the most exquisite punishment imaginable: Being upstaged and mocked on our shores. Activists Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, formerly of Pussy Riot, visited New York, giving exquisite truth to oppression. They told Stephen Colbert they were thrown in prison because they "sang a fun song in a church." Putin's bare-chest obsession came back to bite him: Of his Russia, they said, "we don't want a shirtless man on a horse leading us."

Fortunately in America, we don't have the sort of vindictive politics where authoritarian leaders or their top aides throw anyone who dares to disagree with them in jail or under a bus.

We have bridges for that.

New Jersey political operatives, showing they are no better at overhauling their fiefdom's image than Putin, prefer to stick adversaries in traffic - or traffic in puerile barbs. Which brings us to this beauty of a newspaper correction that appeared in Monday's Newark Star-Ledger: "An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated [that Gov. Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael] Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.' "

It's hard to compete with such moments.

But the Sochi Olympics, the ones not bathed in pathos by NBC, are providing a new form of Olympics entertainment, with one unintended benefit: Putin appears to be keeping his shirt on. Though there's still time.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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