Still in search of Russia as Sochi Olympics end

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SOCHI -- As the flame in the cauldron goes out at these Winter Olympics, Russia is no clearer to me today than before the opening ceremony. It’s a land of contradictions and juxtapositions that I’m still trying to riddle out.

I think of Vladimir Putin, the gay-baiting strongman whose imperial project these Olympics were, dropping by the Holland Heineken House to congratulate Ireen Wuest, the openly bisexual Dutch speed skater, with what the games’ leading individual medal winner later described as “a cuddle.”

I think of the Cossack militiaman who was filmed in downtown Sochi using a bullwhip on members of the punk band Pussy Riot and wonder how a regime capable of locking down an Olympics could permit the staging of an image that, by today’s standards, evokes firehoses in Birmingham in 1963.

I think of the radically different ways Russia found the gold that made it the winner of the medals derby. The hosts did it in the event most associated with the Soviet Union, the men’s 4x7.5-kilometer biathlon relay; and they did it with two victories from expat American Vic Wild, a Washington-raised, Steamboat-trained Alpine snowboarder with a Russian wife.

And I think of a cow.

SI photographer Bob Martin and I encountered that cow -- let’s call her Bessichka -- five and a half years before the Winter Olympics would turn Sochi into a name recognized the world over. The venue clusters by the Black Sea and in the Caucasus Mountains were then barely holes in the ground, and the road between them was little more than a cattle path. Literally, Bob and I discovered, when we hit the brakes to avoid hitting her.

To properly assess these Games, it’s important to remember where they began. And for all the early grumbling about half-baked hotels, Bessichka is a symbol of what Russian organizers pulled off in building an Olympics from scratch.

“Sochi, this city of my birth, with one road into the mountains that two cars can’t go on side-by-side?” marveled Russian bobsledder Alexei Voevoda, winner of two gold medals. “Now we have a road with four lanes and a railroad track. We are a European city. I’m really proud that this has happened. But I really wasn’t expecting it.”

Indeed, Sochi won gold in the expectations games. Transport was flawless. “Politeness lessons” for volunteers clearly took. And without the security breach the world had feared, Putin will top the podium with most of the Russian people.

Periods of crisis have ebbed and flowed through Russia’s history. For the moment Putin presides over a stretch of relative stability. Life may not be great, but people here have known smuta, “times of troubles,” as recently as the ‘90s, with the post-Soviet economic chaos under Boris Yeltsin. They count their blessings for circumstances stable enough to even allow for an Olympics.

Smuta frames everything. I’m trying to explain here, not excuse: A nation that lost 27 million citizens during World War II won’t dwell on the deaths of at least 60 mostly Central Asian migrant workers in the building of Russia’s first-ever Winter Games. And if the Kremlin doesn’t share the West’s attitude toward “non-traditional sexual behavior,” as it’s called here, let Europeans at least thank Russia for making that permissiveness possible by saving them from a thousand-year Reich.

What domestic popularity he has Putin owes to his ability to keep another round of smuta at bay. It’s an illusionist’s trick, of course, attributable to the bread of artificially high oil prices and circuses of huge sports events, with Sochi’s Formula 1 event and soccer’s 2018 World Cup up next. After the country’s humiliating performance in Vancouver, Russia’s medal rush gets high billing today, outside the big top of Fisht Stadium, as the troupers prepare to leave town.

But there came a moment when the host country lost its grip on these Games. It happened midway through last week, around the time Finland bounced Putin’s beloved men’s hockey team from the medal round, when that Cossack raised his bullwhip and the Moscow-supported government of Ukraine, a country as close as any to the Kremlin, wobbled after turning violently on its own people.

In 2004 and 2008 the Olympics had given Putin cover during military adventures in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was an unexpected turnabout to see the Olympic rings suddenly handcuff him.

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Alexey Eremenko of RIA Novosti, the news agency that Putin emasculated just before the games by handing it over to one of his toadies, wrote last week that the world had taken Sochi out on “a giant blind date.”

A head-turning peroxide blonde with a difficult personality, a straight man might say.

A straight woman would tell male Sochi to lose the Speedo.

And what do LGBT people say? President Barack Obama sent Billie Jean King as part of the official U.S. delegation to tonight’s closing ceremony, and on Saturday the openly gay tennis champion and crusader for women’s rights had a message for any Russian with an officially frowned-upon sexual orientation.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “Hang in there. I hope they’re safe and that their families are safe. And I hope that eventually, under law, they’ll have equal rights and responsibilities.”

King was one of the few to raise a voice on that issue. The Olympic “protest zone,” based in a village miles from both downtown Sochi and the Olympic Park, was a joke, inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t navigated layers of bureaucracy to obtain necessary permits.

Meanwhile demonstrations that the Kremlin approved of -- anti-gay picketers outside Sochi’s main railway station on the eve of the Games and a protest in Moscow by fans who wanted the referee in the Russia-U.S. hockey game turned into soap -- went merrily on.

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The grandees of the IOC preach that the games shouldn’t be ensnared in politics. They kept Ukrainian athletes who wanted to memorialize their dead countrymen from wearing black armbands. But as long as the games are an advertisement for the country that hosts them, the Olympics can’t help but invite judgments that extend beyond the arena.

In the end, people around the world will make their own assessments of Putin’s Russia, of just how welcoming Sochi is or isn’t. They’ll decide whether to vacation or do business there -- whether they’ll want to partake in the hot of the coast or the cool of the mountains or whether, essentially, you can have it. If they choose the latter, Sochi will be pockmarked with crumbling monuments to the Russian president’s delusions of grandeur, white-elephant venues and empty hotels.

“Russia,” Putin once said, “will either be great, or it will not be at all.” But he is a hard man dedicated to hard tactics who doesn’t understand that there’s a time and place to lighten one’s touch. Soft power can make a great nation greater with its reach and influence, and the Olympics are the ultimate opportunity for its exercise.

Whatever Russia is, or is becoming -- and I’m still not sure -- Putin and his country could have unlocked so much more from these Olympics than they did.