Midway through, Sochi Games are delivering for Putin
No protests. No real problems.
But plenty of Putin.
Midway through the Winter Olympics, things couldn’t be going much better for both Russia and its president, even if winter is actually missing from Sochi itself. The arenas and mountains are spectacular, the games have been peaceful and protest-free, and Russians seem filled with pride about their country’s ability to put on a spectacle for the world to see.
Worries about terrorist attacks and fears that gay protests could overshadow the Olympics have faded as the world’s best battle for medals on the ice and in the snow. Grandstands are mostly filled, television ratings are strong, and athletes haven’t said a negative word about either Russia’s laws or the food in the athlete’s village.
Yes, a heat wave turned the snow a bit slushy and drew bathers to the Black Sea just steps from the main Olympic stadium. But weather is a factor at any Winter Games, and even Vladimir Putin can’t do anything about that.
In charge of it all is the Russian president, who won the games with a personal plea and has so far treated them as his personal playground. Putin presided over the opening ceremonies, celebrated his country’s first gold medal on ice with figure skaters, and watched stone-faced as the Russian hockey team lost an epic shootout Saturday to the U.S. in a tournament that means more to the country than 100 gold medals.
On Friday, he even paid a visit to the U.S. team house, where he wore a pin that read “Happy Valentine’s Day from Team USA” while chatting with athletes over a glass of wine.
If these are Putin’s Olympics, he has spared no expense to put them on. They are the costliest ever, a $51 billion gamble that transcends sports as part of an effort to show Russia’s resurgence as a world power.
The first full week of the Olympics, though, was as much about what didn’t happen as what did.
Sochi wasn’t overrun by packs of marauding stray dogs, as some journalists had come to expect. Hotel rooms were finished for the most part, and there has been nothing but raves over the efficiency of an Olympic transportation system charged with moving people between the mountains and the coast.
And while temperatures soared higher than snowboarders on a slick halfpipe, there was plenty of snow stockpiled in the mountains and no truth to the quip that snowboarding would become waterboarding.
Most seriously, there was no sign that Islamic terrorists who roam just a few hundred miles over the mountains have done anything to carry out their leader’s pre-Olympic plea to disrupt the games.
Credit much of that to a massive security operation that sealed off the area around Sochi, with chips embedded in credentials to track where everyone goes. There’s security everywhere but, at the same time, the net cast around these games hasn’t seemed terribly overbearing.
“I’m not going to say it’s impossible for someone to do something, but it will be so difficult to do that it’s just not going to be worth their while,” said Robert Schaefer, a former Green Beret who serves as a security analyst for NBC television and had expressed reservations about Russian security before the Olympics. “I’m really pleased about it. I’d bring my kids over at this point.”
Not as pleased are those who thought the Olympics would be used as a platform to protest Russian laws that prohibit gay “propaganda” that might reach children. There was talk before the games that athletes — particularly medal winners — would use the spotlight to speak out against the law, but they have remained silent about the issue.