Russian Cossacks patrol at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort in Krasnaya Polyana, near Sochi, yesterday.
MOSCOW: The Sochi Winter Olympics are meant to be Vladimir Putin’s crowning achievement as Russian leader but are in danger of becoming a symbol of his country’s problems.
When the Games open with great fanfare on February 7, the president will be there to revel in the unlikely feat of turning an ageing sub-tropical resort on the Black Sea into a glittering modern hub for a Winter Games in seven years.
He hopes the most expensive Games in Olympic history — summer or winter — will validate his role as Russia’s supreme leader, unite the country behind him and show how far it has come since Soviet days.
“I would like the participants, fans, journalists and all those who watch the Games on television to see a new Russia, see its face and possibilities, take a fresh and unbiased look at the country,” he told the media in Sochi.
But the preparations for the Games have also put the spotlight on Russia’s problems.
For all his assurances that a “ring of steel” around Sochi will make the Games safe, security forces have spent the past week hunting for a woman who is suspected of planning a suicide bombing and may already be in the city.
Tales of corruption, outrage over his friends and allies winning lucrative Olympic building contracts, worries about damage to the environment and reports of migrant construction workers being mistreated must be ringing in Putin’s ears.
The Games’ projected $50bn price tag looks even more of a gamble now that Russia’s economy has taken a turn for the worse in the past few months.
When Putin almost single-handedly won Russia the right to host the Games in 2007, the economy of the world’s largest country’s was in overdrive, powered by high oil prices, after registering annual growth of over six percent in each of the previous four years.
But that was before the 2008-09 global financial crisis, and the political and economic stagnation that has discouraged foreign investment in Russia during Putin’s third term as president. Growth is expected to be only about two percent this year and Russian banks are starting to look badly exposed.
Putin sees the Sochi Games, which last until February 23, as a chance to give the resort a makeover and revive big infrastructure projects. Sochi has long resembled a huge construction site, but now boasts hotels providing 40,000 new rooms, state-of-the-art stadiums and a new road and railway line to the ski resort of Krasnaya Polyana that cost about $8bn.
Putin said allegations of corruption were “nothing but talk”, underlining that half of the budget came from private funds and half from state coffers.
About 6,000 athletes, coaches and officials from around 90 countries will take part in events ranging from Alpine skiing to ice hockey and snowboarding.
The biggest potential threat to the Games is a militant attack on Sochi, which lies on the western edge of the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, scene of an insurgency aiming to create an Islamist state.
Islamist leader Doku Umarov has urged followers to prevent the Games going ahead.
Putin has put about 37,000 personnel on combat alert in Sochi and drones and warships are being deployed. Security is also high nationwide.
Another potential party-spoiler could be demonstrations over a law banning the spread of “homosexual propaganda” among minors.
Putin is hoping the spotlight finally turns on the positive once the Games begin, and will do all he can to ensure it is a personal and national triumph, even though he denies having personal ambitions with respect to the Games. “As you know, there is a strong connection between the Olympic Games, progress in sport and the successful development of a nation overall,” he said. “I hope it will happen.”