The Sochi Olympics were supposed to celebrate a country remade—a chance for the hosts, as organizing committee communications chief Alexandra Kosterina put it 15 months ago, "to break stereotypes about old and cold Russia." In keeping with the arriviste character of a Games built entirely from scratch, organizers did for a while seem determined to construct not so much a cluster of venues as a series of TV soundstages for an 18-day infomercial. But if there's a "New Russia" anywhere between the palm trees of the Black Sea coast and the snowpack of the northwestern Caucasus, it has been difficult to detect.
Consider the litany of antimodern themes to emerge around these Games since Russia won them in 2007. The initial estimated cost has quadrupled to a record-shattering $50 billion, one-third of which, IOC member Gian-Franco Kasper recently alleged on Swiss TV, has been lost to bribery. In the Krasnodar region that includes Sochi, bands of paramilitary Cossacks, looking every bit the 18th-century part, mete out rough justice that's barely this side of vigilantism, with a particular eye for ethnic minorities. President Vladimir Putin arbitrated the carving up of Sochi construction projects among Russia's oligarchs in much the same way medieval rulers once played referee to the aristocratic boyars who threw their weight around the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. (Vladimir Potanin delivered the Alpine center; Boris and Arkady Rotenberg built the power plant for the ice venues; Vladimir Yakunin supervised the 31-mile highway and rail link between the coast and the mountains that, at $9.4 billion, cost more than the entire 2010 Vancouver Olympics.)
And state-sponsored intimidation has a cold war feel: Last year the government launched probes into some 1,000 nongovernmental organizations operating in Russia to determine which should be considered foreign agents, while the foreign ministry has been denying visas to or evicting foreign journalists.
Like few others, this Olympics has been the work of one man. Three years ago Putin bent to his will a nationwide vote to choose the Sochi mascots. (He wanted, and got, the snow leopard among the three.) In August he signed a decree banning all demonstrations against his regime or its human rights record in Sochi during the Games. After protesting illegal deforestation around Olympic construction sites, one Russian activist wound up in prison and another fled to Estonia to avoid arrest. Putin's attempts at magnanimity, such as the release of two imprisoned Pussy Riot members and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, only serve as reminders of the abuses that landed them and others in jail in the first place.
February 3, 2014
But the regime's targeting of what it calls "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," ostensibly to protect young people, is drawing the most international condemnation, especially as Putin has breezily lumped homosexuality in with pedophilia. In response, Western governments will keep a head of state home or, as the U.S. will do, stack its official delegation with gays and lesbians. Some athletes are weighing whether to display the number six, in solidarity with Principle Six of the Olympic Charter, which bars discrimination. It's unclear if the IOC or the Russians will tolerate even this gesture, or whether Olympians who want to make a stand will have to exile themselves to the designated protest zones set up far beyond the athletes' villages.
Agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB that Putin once ran, will be tasked with keeping the Sochi Games safe from the threats of terrorists. It will be hard to begrudge them if they succeed, but legal protections essentially no longer exist in the restive North Caucasus, and over the past several years an advanced surveillance regime has become entrenched throughout Russia. This System of Operative-Investigative Measures, or SORM, is capable of monitoring phone calls, emails, social networks and the Internet at large without having to engage phone companies or ISPs as middlemen. With every would-be spectator required to upload in advance personal details, including a photo, to a Sochi 2014 website, it's little wonder that the sale of tour packages is lagging and some 30% of tickets remained available as of mid-January.
Once the Olympic cauldron is lit, the athletes tend to write the narrative. And that's how Sochi might actually deliver. The 2014 program features a record dozen new events, most of them telegenic spectacles like team figure skating, a coed luge relay, freestyle skiing halfpipe and women's ski jumping—the same discipline that Kasper, the IOC panjandrum, once dismissed as "not ... appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view." Indeed, women's ski jumping is an anti-Putin twofer, subverting both his retrograde ideology and machismo in, literally, one fell swoop.
But unless some basic freedoms—say, the ability to proclaim one's sixual orientation, as it were—extend to Sochi's venues and squares, the world won't think of the Olympic city as that place where Cannes meets Davos. The capital of the Russian Riviera will, rather, come off as something much more prosaic and uninviting: Moscow in the 1970s, old and cold.
Map of Sochi
Persons of Interest
Faces in the Crowd