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For Sochi Games, anticipation and wariness

The Winter Games at Sochi have been dreaded since the moment they were proclaimed. Now, with but a month to go before they unfold – no doubt with the customary bombast at least on the surface – the dread approaches panic. Does the premise of the impending spectacle border on madness? Many, with good reason, are wondering and worrying.
There is so much that can go wrong!

From the outset, skeptics have questioned the wisdom of staging the Winter Olympics at a subtropical seaside resort site in very southern Russia. Consider that, as the crow flies, Sochi is closer to Iraq than it is to Volgograd. If the mighty Caucasus rise only a few dozen kilometers away, Sochi on the Black Sea is said to be over-run with palm trees. So don’t look for Alpine conditions. The climate you’d likely get if you ran skiing events in the Appalachian foothills of northern Georgia or southern Tennessee is closer to what you can expect. As one wag has asserted, “Sochi makes balmy Vancouver look like Siberia.”

It was to calm all such fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling buddy at the Kremlin, Dmitry Medvedev, visited the ski-venue site on New Year’s day and took a few runs on the boards. A devoted jock, Putin delights in disporting his sporting skills. In other words, he’s a show-off. But this was more than just the familiar strutting. The iron-willed Russian ruler has much invested in the far-out notion that these games are destined to be blissfully grand, even idyllic, and will thus inspire the high rollers of the world to come flocking to his favorite personal resort, making it the Black Sea’s equivalent of the Riviera. It may seem a long shot, but his determination to realize that dream, no matter the cost, is well beyond obsession.

And in the end, the weather will probably be the least of his problems. The cost has already been established as perfectly ludicrous. Initially budgeted for $12 billion, it’s believed to have surpassed $50 billion last summer while continuing to mount since with the price of security alone lately skyrocketing. In the end, the final tab – many believe – may come closer to $75 billion, although no one expects anything approaching accurate accounting from Mr. Putin.  For some perspective, recall that the price tag for the last winter games in Vancouver was roughly $9 billion and resentment over that in the ranks of the Canadian electorate ran deep.

Corruption spiced with cronyism is alleged to have been rampant with all of it ultimately linked to the president. It has become a bit of a joke across the Motherland where they have always had a keen sense of humor about such things. Quipped Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champ turned politician and a vigorous opponent of Mr. Putin, “I never doubted he and his cronies would take the gold.”
 
Other issues persist. Under pressure, the government has backed away from proposed severe curbs on demonstrations of homosexual preference and behavior while outlawing what it termed “homosexual propaganda,” although not before harm was done to Mr. Putin’s dream scenario as the issue prompted disdainful reaction from many western leaders, including President Obama. As payback, apparently mainly for all that, Mr. Obama is personally boycotting the games, a stinging rebuke to Mr. Putin.

There have been other rebukes. Human Rights Watch has charged the government with intimidating activists trying to probe corruption issues and journalists sniffing out all such stuff. The abuse of migrant workers at the game sites is alleged as well as the extensive eviction of families with properties seized without compensation to make way for the massive project. On a key sports matter, Olympic officials are concerned that the Russian teams’ rather casual attitude about performance enhancements might relax overall enforcement, making these Games “messier” than usual. There’s just no end to things to fret about.

But they all pale compared with the security issue. With the late surge of increasingly spectacular incidents in the lead-up to the Games, fears are soaring ,and with plenty good reason!  All the extremist vigilante groups flourishing in southern Russia of late – and they are plentiful – demand  grave concern but the lead dog in the pack, the Chechen separatist movement led by the formidable Doku Umarov, is world class in this dark and desperate business, and thereby profoundly to be feared.

You’ll hear a lot about Mr. Umarov during the Olympiad’s two-week run in February. He’s generally credited with having his fingerprints all over the most spectacular terrorist strikes in Russia over the last dozen years, including the Moscow theater strike in 2002, the Breslan school strike in 2004, the Moscow subway strike in 2010, and the Donodedovo airport strike in 2011. So while he hasn’t yet claimed the distinction, it’s assumed he’s behind the back-to-back hits in Volgograd just before New Year’s that killed 40 while deeply rattling every Olympics delegation in the civilized world.

At war with the Russian government since the suppression of Chechnya some 20 years ago, these guys are for real and their leader, Umarov, is a true tiger. He’s said to find refuge in merry Dagestan, the pre-dominantly Islamic enclave on the Caspian Sea that gave us the Marathon marauders of unhappy memory. He vows to destroy “Putin’s games.” Indeed, he has called them “Satanic dances.” Clearly, he’s neither amiable, nor a party guy, nor gifted with a sense of humor.

These are tough cookies. It should be recalled that in its previous incarnation Volgograd was known as Stalingrad, where the eastern tide of the Nazis in World War II was fatally turned in a colossal effort of courage and character by the city’s citizenry and the Red Army. The name of the town has changed, but it’s not likely that the character of its people have. If the Umarov gang can raise hell in Volgograd, the vulnerability of an inherently loose, chaotic, and nearly impossible-to-fully-police target like the Olympics speaks for itself.

Mr. Putin, who hardly needs a good excuse to crack down on dissent at the price of civil liberties, is hard at work rounding up all the usual suspects. By one account, he has jailed at least 700 alleged terrorists, some of whom, it’s fair to presume, are merely unlucky. The roundup will continue through the opening ceremonies. The security staff. including police, military troops, and special-ops, has been increased to a mighty force of roughly 70,000. Individual delegations, most especially our own, will also have their own small but highly specialized security units.

No doubt Mr. Umarov is beside himself with glee. He enjoys already a degree of success.

We’ve had plenty of precedent for all this nonsense. The chronicle of   troublesome conditions blighting the games over the many years is lengthy.

And hardly is there anything new about the costs going haywire. China officials acknowledged spending $40 billion on their Beijing bash, but the true cost was probably much more. Way back in 1976, an Olympiad plunged Montreal into a generation of debt and regret. In terms of controversy, the festivals in 1932, 1968, and 1980 were all superior examples. For scandal, how can you top the 1936 Nazi games in Berlin? For the repression of civil liberties the Seoul games in 1988 set the standard.

Nor were the games we staged free of such taints. Both Atlanta in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002 were corrupted. Security demands have long been accepted, but the degree to which they were absolutely required at the London summer games two years ago shocked the Brits. As for the issue of violence featuring the radical intrusion of real-world evil on the tender Olympic myth, nothing surpasses Munich in 1972. At least not yet!

There’s no escaping harsh reality, not even at glorious Olympiads. Never has there been any relief, never will be! But as a complete package, the forthcoming Sochi Winter Games have the potential to be the ultimate example. The world will watch warily while holding its collective breath.