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Well done, Sochi! Now, it’s time for some questions

It is well known that Avery Brundage, that legendarily bitter despot who memorably bullied the Olympic movement for about a half century, deeply despised the Winter Games.

He thought they were corrupt, and as an expert on such tricks, he could spot the signs. He thought they were unmanageable and as a good old-fashioned apparatchik devoted to efficiency, he found that abominable. He had no feel for their beauty, drama, and finely choreographed theatre, which affirms, as nothing better could, that the remorseless old cynic was also a bloody bore. But above all he believed they were not worth their colossal expense. And on that we’re willing to concede, after all these years, that Herr Brundage may have had a point.  

How to grade the spectacular pageant just finished at Sochi deep in impenetrable Russia, which set all sorts of records for extravagance? Doggone well, I would say, even if it didn’t bode well for the future of “The Games.”

When you consider all the devilish factors that were at play over the mid-winter fortnight – the security concerns that preceded it, all the fears perhaps needlessly fanned by we of the media, the rather trifling suspicions of Comrade Putin’s aims and motives, the pettiness of the nitpicking (too much from we of the media) about minor inconveniences, the impertinence of the weather, which was entirely predictable, even the alarming spectacle of revolutionary rage in the streets of neighboring Ukraine, (the litany seemed endless) – you should marvel at how well it all turned out.

These games were worth it, at least for those of us who didn’t have to pick up the tab. The aftermath may be another matter which, happily, we needn’t   worry about, either.

But what of the future of this fabulous festival, or that of kindred venues, including the Summer Olympics, or other quadrennial epics staged for more arcane frolics like rugby and cricket, or even soccer’s fabled World Cup for that matter? Ah, now, that is the question.  

We may have a glimpse of the answer evolving in mere weeks when the World Cup lights up Brazil. That is, of course, if Brazil is ready by early June when the first matches are scheduled. Reportedly, FIFA, soccer’s no-nonsense world governing body which stages that brilliant event to the utter joy of most of the world, has been driven quite daft the last several years by the alleged foot-dragging of the Brazilians in their preparation, which has been much too happy-go-lucky for FIFA’s tastes. Deadlines have been routinely missed. Construction of at least one of the major stadiums is quite unfinished. With only three months to go, nerves are frayed.

The overwhelming issue in Brazil of course is money. The cost, which has greatly exceeded estimates and routinely smashed budgets, is staggering for a third world country which, although much on the rise among promising global economies, remains hobbled by traditional social issues and the crippling burdens of an immense underclass.  There may be no more soccer-crazed nation under the sun than Brazil, but the question of priorities can no longer be denied.  

And greatly aggravating all of that is the prospect of Brazil, or, more precisely, its queen city of Rio de Janeiro, being the host for the next Olympiad as well, the Summer Games of 2016.  To the surprise of no one, and to the increasing dread of the International Olympic Committee, Rio is free-falling behind schedule in its Olympic preparation as well. Is it hopeless? Not yet. But bickering is on the rise. The blame game has already begun. There’s faintly the potential for disaster now that the Sochi Games are history. The world is about to learn about all that as the IOC veers hell-bent toward panic.  

In Russia the challenge was, while certainly different in detail, essentially comparable in terms of degree. In fact, the logistical burden on Russia, where they had to essentially create in very short order an entire community as well as the sporting venue, all from virtual scratch, while extraneous issues rooted in ethnic tension were roiling, likely posed an even greater challenge than what Brazil now faces. The difference in the two situations is Vladimir Putin.   

Disdain him if you like. There’s more than enough in his resume to legitimately question or doubt. But don’t deny the toughness of this bloke. Sochi, in the end, was Putin’s personal triumph. One of his bitterest critics characterized his challenge as “a death-defying geopolitical gamble.” And he won!  Quibble about little details, all you wish. But overall, Putin takes the Gold.

What Russia had and Brazil does not have, is a character in charge with the guts, gall, and iron will to pull it off with an extraordinary arrogance in sneering defiance of huge odds. But it helped to have a system that essentially demands no accountability, allowing a demagogue to declare money to be no object. Of further advantage was for said demagogue to bestride a system that allowed for any dissent in such matters to be easily “controlled.”

The leadership in Brazil has no such advantages.  Dissent in the streets is heavy, soon to get more so. The neighborhoods, seething as they are bulldozed to make way for Olympics’ playgrounds, are fighting back. The drum beat to the games will be rife with civil protest shaking a fragile government. Even Pope Francis, ardent soccer fan and eager promoter of all things South American that he may be, has plunged into the debate in protesting the cost of the sports extravaganzas and urging that matching funds go to the marginalized.  It’s quite a spectacle that’s about to blossom south of the border.

Is the clock ticking on these epics? Maybe as we have known them. The crown capitals of the old industrialized powerhouse nations are less interested than was formerly the case. And as the price and the nuisance of the things climb, exacerbated by security woes and geo-political tensions, interest in them may further decrease down the road. Who needs it?  

For third world nations there’s more incentive, offering those on the rise the chance to strut their stuff, to make a statement. But can they handle it? The World Cup, which bears less baggage, may go on forever, but one can imagine the Olympics persisting as we have largely known them only as long as the television industry finds them profitable. And the profit margin ain’t what it used to be.

As for the quality of the competition, which is the main thing, I thought it quite grand, as usual. The Americans did not greatly distinguish themselves in compiling most of their distinctions in relatively new and marginal events. But so what?

Along the way I heard a young and articulate American skier – I believe it was Tamara McKinney, by name – politely complain that while there is too much emphasis on medals overall, the Americans are the worst offenders. “If you don’t win gold you’re a loser,” she noted wistfully. Would that it were different! The American male hockey team brought that attitude to an embarrassingly new low when they clearly packed it in, virtually defaulting against Finland in the Bronze medal game and making it clear to the entire world that they deemed third place beneath their dignity. They should be ashamed of themselves.

But moments to gripe about were few and greatly out-numbered. It’s always a pleasure to see the likes of remote Norway, with a population about equal to Greater Boston’s, and the tiny Netherlands, which renounced global ambitions four centuries ago, rise so magnificently in these games. Like it or not, it’s always pleasing to have the Canadians win hockey gold. Hey, it’s their game. You can’t begin to appreciate how much it means to them. As Barry Melrose noted on ESPN, “Up in Sakatoon the gold medal game began at 6 a.m and they opened the bars at 5 A.M so they could get ready.”  Pleasing, too, was to have the Russians win the most medals. When the host nation does that, it’s always deserved.

Sweet to the last it was, ending on a classical touch very Russian. And to all who skied biathlon or finished cross-country or careened downhill in a bobsled – win or lose – we say, ‘Well done!”