SOCHI – In 1787, after the conquest of the Crimea and southern Ukraine, Catherine The Great left Saint Petersburg for a six-month tour of New Russia. Prince Grigory Potemkin, the dashing statesman and military man, was governor-general of the annexed territory, which lays about 400 miles west of the future site of an improbable Olympics. He also had been one in a long string of lovers of the legendarily lusty Catherine, who, presumably, would have taken great delight in the stories about the staggering number of condoms distributed in the athlete’s village, which have become as much a staple of Olympic reportage as security and cost overruns. (At London 2012, 100,000 were distributed.)
In an effort to impress the tsarina with the prosperity of her new lands -- or so the story goes -- Potemkin ordered the construction of elaborate façades, faux villages that he peopled with serfs. From the distance of Catherine’s royal barge on the Dnieper River, these towns looked like the real thing, if not better.
Like George Washington’s I-cannot-tell-a-lie cherry tree, fable has outstripped fact. Potemkin was not building pasteboard villages, tearing them down and having them reassembled down river. He simply was being a gallant host, sprucing up the neighborhood for his royal guest. While the occasional false front might have camouflaged some blemishes in the landscape, Potemkin’s was hardly the most shocking of political cover-ups that Russia, or most countries, see.
Alas, court gossip eternally has linked the Potemkin name to deception. On the other hand, he did get a conference room named in his honor at the Main Press Center in the mountains.
Two hundred and twenty-seven years after Catherine’s visit, coincidentally again in southern Russia, a false front has been erected. This is my third extended trip to a country that is both part of my past and my future -- my maternal grandparents were born here, and my daughter lives and works in Moscow -- and almost nothing here suggests a Russia that I recognize. Sochi, or at least the Olympic area a few miles down the coast in Adler, is more like Disney World-by-the-Black-Sea, right down to the confectionery architecture and the shell of a roller coaster in the Olympic Park.
The observation that Sochi is a 21st-century model of a Potemkin village has been made frequently as this faded resort favored by Stalin underwent the massive facelift that will enable it to be the host of a 17-day sporting bacchanal. These Olympics are a trompe l’oeil, a thin veneer of modernity splashed on a country that is practiced at tricking the eye. Like ballet and figure skating and epic novels, the ruse is one more art form at which Russia excels. From a western perspective, the most brazen Russian façade is democracy, the system of government enshrined in the constitution in 1993. With its lack of transparency, dubious judiciary and the cult of personality centered on president Vladimir Putin, there is a sense that Russian democracy has roughly the same relationship to the genuine article as Velveeta has to cheese.
Of course if this grand and maddening country were something else -- if there were a framework of western-style accountability or, say, western-style accounting practices -- maybe 88 nations would not be marching into Fisht Stadium on Friday. These built-from-scratch Olympics are hubris on steroids, an exercise in presidential vanity that rivals anything of the past century.
These are Putin’s Olympics. They have been from the moment the president of the Russian Federation, speaking in English, flattered the suggestible IOC in Guatemala City seven years ago and won the games for a sub-tropical region that had no winter sports infrastructure and was a few hundred miles from the simmering North Caucasus.
On the eve of the games that should never have happened, the Potemkin village is up and running reasonably well. The venues look fabulous. (Some of the accouterments do not, but we will return to those.) In recent months Putin has been project manager as much as president. He personally tested the ski slopes in Krasnaya Polyana, 35 miles north of the city, and played some shinny on Olympic ice with Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus autocrat with the George Parros starter-kit mustache, expanding the conventional definition of power forward in the process. Putin’s down payment in personal prestige almost dwarfs the cost of the most expensive Olympic undertaking. The $50 billion outlay, four times higher than original budget estimates, represents about half the value of the automaker Nissan, is only a few billion south of Warren Buffett’s net worth and is more than three times larger than the $15 billion loan guarantee Russia made to neighboring Ukraine in December so it would stop playing footsie with the European Union and tilt back towards the east.
If that whiff of something in the air really is the Cold War and not the wet fur of Sochi’s stray dogs -- the proposed cull of the itinerant canines does not exactly brim with self-styled Olympic compassion -- the West has been only too eager to slip its accustomed role. Consider the issue of LGBT rights, paramount to many in the West but one far down the list of concerns for the workaday Russian. In the face of Russia’s gay propaganda law signed by Putin last June, the United States chose to include openly gay ex-athletes like Billie Jean King, who had to pull out because of her mother’s poor health, and Brian Boitano as part of the official delegation. Well played. This was a declaration of principle, a tacit rebuke. But the Obama administration doubled down on its distaste by activating some members of the political taxi squad for Sochi. The marquee name is Janet Napolitano, former head of Homeland Security. Ultimately if it were willing to accept the Olympic invitation in the face of Russian law -- and there was no serious thought of a boycott -- the U.S. should have been a more considerate guest and not sent some c-list politicians.
At times the pre-Olympic coverage of Sochi has been sneering, starting with the price tag. Some economic parsing is in order. The Olympics do not cost $50 billion; the redevelopment of the region, spurred by the games, and the costs associated with the games, including security, do. This is a Putin infrastructure play that coincides with a sports festival, a stab at redeveloping a remote city of 350,000 and establishing a sustainable world-class ski resort in the Caucasus.
This is an investment, arguably a wiser one than Beijing’s $40 billion games six years ago. Now reportedly an obscene percentage of the Sochi budget slipped through the cracks and wound up in some wallets, but casual corruption is hardly unique to Russia. Because of rampant corruption in the construction industry, a projected $134 million Olympic Stadium for Montreal 1976 -- the Big O, quickly dubbed the Big Owe -- wound up costing $1.61 billion by the time it was paid off three decades later. The difference is mostly the economy of scale of skullduggery.
In the days before the opening ceremonies, the spotlight has illuminated the small stuff. Admittedly if you have paid for a hotel and there are no light bulbs or clear running water but there are multiple guests who also have been given a key to your room, you might not judge the issue small. Like the chaotic 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, with its hopeless transportation system -- U-S-A!, U-S-A! -- Sochi has received some unkind media notices, this time from a fourth estate with time on its iPhone-holding hands. The hotel situation is unfortunate. Then again, Montreal 1976 -- Go Canada Go! -- did without the promised retractable roof on its stadium, literally and figuratively a hole in the centerpiece of the games. On balance, this is probably worse.
The predominant story of Sochi has centered on security fears, entirely legitimate given the geopolitical hornet’s nests a few hundred miles away. There are reportedly 37,000 security personnel in Putin’s so-called Ring of Steel, roughly 12 for every athlete. This guarantees nothing, of course, because life can change in an instant. But on the eve of the opening ceremonies, nothing here suggests an armed camp. Not to bore you with another Sochi hotel story -- mine is swell; thanks for asking -- but bags rarely have been scanned at the security entrance to our hotel.
Question: Can a security system be a Potemkin village?
At their essence, the Olympics are TV show, a green screen on which each country is free to project its interests and its aspirations. The Swiss vision of Sochi is largely different from the South Korean, which only occasionally intersects the American. Maybe biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen’s quest to become the most decorated Winter Olympian will not play in Peoria, but probably none of the studio hosts on Good Morning Oslo! is discussing a novice brakeman on the American women’s bobsled team.
(Yes, Lolo Jones, who was a controversial addition. Whatever Lolo wants, Lolo gets.)
Once the flame is lit, Olympic smoke figures to get in the eyes of the world. The template for real-world amnesia was Beijing, where smog got in the eyes. But after Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt folded into their starting blocks, the human rights issue stalked off to brood in the corner. There likely will be protests, but the prospect of LBGT questions at every press conference has faded even before the competition has begun. At the moment there seems to be more interest in the debut of snowboard slopestyle, one of the extreme sports that probably has Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin doing a 1440 double cork in his grave.
This is the thing about a 2014 Potemkin village: the bar has been set so low that Sochi - and by extension, Putin -- can hardly fail. The country will be judged on its ability to deliver a telegenic and safe Olympics, not a memorable one.
If everyone who flew here gets on an airplane home, Russia wins.