A world constantly in conflict turns to the Olympic Games as a unifying event, emphasizing peace through sport as acclaimed athletes from every end of the globe compete. They strive not only for an iconic gold medal, but for the hearts of millions of inspired onlookers. It is a spirit with the power to inspire a generation; the American class of Olympians grew up with the Miracle on Ice, the Dream Team, and Michael Phelps. The Winter Games are an opportunity to add their names to the history books.
The newest installment will be written by Sochi, a bustling resort city nestled against the Black Sea. It is far from a winter wonderland, sharing a latitude line with the balmy French Riviera.
But as is Russia’s style under strongman Vladimir Putin, failure is not an option. From the start, Russia has tried to project an image of success, a triumph on multiple fronts. The Sochi games represent a transformation, albeit not an apology. Their Olympic history doesn’t make them a villian per se, but it carries cause for concern. From the tension in the 1980s to a 2008 invasion of Georgia, they’ve been the elephant in the room.
Officials pulled out all of the stops during the 2007 selection process — Putin delivered his address in English and French — and they haven’t stopped building since. In spite of the scarred landscape that surrounds Sochi, the International Olympic Committee gave an all-clear in September. Even if the aesthetics weren’t entirely set, the city was prepared as far as structures went.
Even then, Sochi isn’t really ready. Their climate can’t accommodate every event, so skiers are literally going the distance just to race. Krasnaya Polyana will host the Alpine circuit where lack of snow is no problem but avalanches pose a threat.
These Olympics are the most expensive to date, which is no small feat. Putin pledged $12 billion off the bat, nearly twice the cost of the 2010 games. $51 billion later, critics aren’t certain that the money adds up. Former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov believes that as much as sixty percent of that figure was spent outside of Sochi. Were Russian organizers really that far off in their original estimate? Nemtsov believes that “banal thievery, corruption and [a] complete lack of professionalism” has driven them into debt.
Some far more conspiratorial than I would say that the extinguished Olympic torch could foreshadow disaster. It has been snuffed out dozens of times, once started by a lighter, and probably even killed a guy. Vadim Gorbenko, 73, died of a heart attack shortly after carrying the torch.
Even if time could heal Russia’s wounds, Putin continues to pick at the scabs. His domestic policy has targeted perceived homosexual “propaganda” at the games, including infamous remarks on “leav[ing] the kids alone.” You know, just in case. This has not come without international repercussions, with President Obama leading a boycott of the games.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Winter Olympics is an active terror threat. Russia’s geography and political history hasn’t made them friends, to say the least. With threats on all sides, including vows that blood would run in the streets, the legion of security (last numbered around 37,000) doesn’t know who the enemy is anymore. “Black widows” lurk around the corner and the United States has a written protocol of an emergency escape for Olympians. In a post-9/11 world, every global event is a target, but Russia is another mess altogether. On the surface, the police can’t tell friend from foe, which comes with harsh consequences if they make a mistake.
We’re still a few weeks away. Maybe a large security presence can keep the attention on the athletes, and perhaps Putin’s games will be remembered fondly. So ready or not, the Winter Olympics are on our doorstep. The IOC was ready for Russia: ready in 2007, supportive after Beijing, and still standing behind them today. But whether or not Russia is ready for the Winter Games remains to be seen.