Seven years ago, Vladimir Putin traveled all the way to Guatemala to woo Olympic leaders with his grandiose vision: hosting the Winter Games in Russia’s little-known Black Sea summer resort of Sochi.
Putin’s personal pitch — delivered partly in English and French — did the trick as Sochi beat out bids from South Korea and Austria for the right to stage the 2014 Games on the so-called “Russian Riviera.”
Putin’s political influence and Russia’s might bowled over the International Olympic Committee on that day.
It was a risky choice then and it shapes up as even riskier now.
With the opening ceremony less than two weeks away, Putin’s prestige and his country’s reputation are at stake — riding on a $51 billion mega-project meant to showcase a modern Russia but overshadowed by a barrage of concerns over terrorism, gay rights, human rights, corruption, waste and overspending.
No other Winter Games has faced such an acute terror threat. No other Winter Olympics has been so engulfed in politics. No other recent Olympics has been so closely associated with one man — Putin, the “captain” of the Sochi team.
Amid a politically charged atmosphere and ominous security climate, can Putin and Russia deliver a safe and successful Olympics? Can Sochi defy the grim predictions and dazzle the world with well-organized games featuring shiny new venues, picturesque mountains and the world’s best winter sports athletes?
Lest we forget, the Olympics are also supposed to be about sports and athletes: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and other NHL stars competing for their home countries on the hockey rink; snowboard great Shaun White doing new gravity-defying flips and twists; South Korean figure skating queen Yuna Kim performing graceful magic on the ice; American teen sensation Mikaela Shiffrin zipping through the slalom gates.
About 3,000 athletes from more than 80 countries will be competing in 98 medal events. Twelve new events are on the program, with women’s ski jumping making its debut after being rejected for inclusion at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The medals race is likely to be between Norway, the United States, Canada and Germany. The Russians, coming off their worst ever Winter Games in Vancouver, are determined to bounce back on home territory. A gold medal from the Ovechkin-led hockey team would be the ultimate prize for a country that hasn’t won the Olympic title since a “Unified Team” of former Soviet republics triumphed in 1992.
“Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians,” Ovechkin said.
Sochi will also offer up its share of human-interest story lines:
— the return of the Jamaican bobsled team for the first time since 2002, rekindling the feel-good story of 1988 that inspired the film “Cool Runnings.”
— track and field stars Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams switching from the Summer Olympics to Winter Games as members of the U.S. women’s bobsled team.
— British-based classical-pop musician Vanessa-Mae trading her violin for a pair of skis to compete for Thailand, her father’s native country.
— and, yes, those wild and crazy pants worn by the Norwegian men’s curling team — red, white and blue zig-zag patterns this time.
For now, the world’s focus remains squarely on the terror danger posed by the Islamic insurgency in the Northern Caucasus. An Islamic militant group in Dagestan claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed 34 people in late December in Volgograd and threatened to attack the games in Sochi.
Russian security officials have been hunting for three potential female suicide bombers, one of whom is believed to be in Sochi itself. The suspects are known as “black widows,” women seeking to avenge husbands or male relatives killed in Russia’s fight against insurgents in the region.
“We know some of them got through the perimeter,” said Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee. “What we don’t know is how many more black widows are out there. … How many potential cells could be in Sochi and the Olympic Village?”
Russia is mounting what is believed to be the biggest security operation ever for an Olympics, deploying more than 50,000 police and soldiers to protect the games. The cordon includes naval warships, anti-aircraft batteries and drone aircraft. Two U.S. warships will be in the Black Sea to help if needed.
“We will try to make sure that the security measures taken aren’t too intrusive or visible and that they won’t put pressure on the athletes, guests and journalists,” Putin said.
Sochi’s preparations have also been clouded by the Western uproar against a Russian law enacted last year that prohibits gay “propaganda” among minors. Critics and gay activists say the law discriminates against homosexuals and could be used against anyone openly supporting gay rights at the games.
Putin has insisted there will be no discrimination of any kind against any athletes or spectators in Sochi, yet his recent comments linking homosexuality and pedophilia have only inflamed the issue.
The IOC, meanwhile, has reminded athletes to comply with “Rule 50″ of the Olympic Charter, which forbids protests or political gestures at Olympic venues.
President Barack Obama has seized on the issue by sending a U.S. delegation to Sochi that includes three openly gay members — tennis great Billie Jean King, figure skater Brian Boitano and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Hoping to show off a resurgent Russia that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, organizers have built virtually all Olympic facilities from scratch to turn a decaying, Stalinist-era resort into what they hope will be a year-round tourist destination and winter sports mecca for the region.
Sochi features one of the most compact layouts in Olympic history, with all indoor arenas located close to each other in an Olympic Park along the coast. The cluster of snow venues are about 45 minutes away in the Krasnaya Polyana mountains.
“The venues will be perhaps the most spectacular, the best ever,” said senior Norwegian IOC member Gerhard Heiberg, who organized the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.
The project has come at a monumental cost: the $51 billion price tag, which includes construction of news road, tunnels, rail lines and other long-term infrastructure investments, is a record for any Winter or Summer Games. Billions of dollars have disappeared in kickbacks, embezzlement or mismanagement, critics claim.
“What’s not good is all the money that’s been spent,” said Heiberg, head of the IOC marketing commission. “This could influence very badly cities thinking about bidding for the games.”
In spite of all the criticism, IOC members believe the Russians deserve the chance to prove the choice of Sochi was the right one.
“Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1980,” Canadian member Dick Pound said. “They are certainly capable of organizing a Winter Olympics. They have created a winter sports complex out of virtually nothing and they did it in 5-6 years. My guess is they will deliver good games.”