Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with athletes at the Olympic village in Sochi. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)
In Vancouver four years ago, the cauldron for the Olympic flame at the Winter Games was a squat structure, set barely at street level behind cyclone fencing.
In Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent an estimated $50 billion developing the sites of the Games, which begin Thursday, the cauldron is a tower, jutting at a dramatic angle dozens of feet above the proceedings.
And, four years ago, the figure skating competitions were held in an old ice arena the NHL abandoned years go.
The Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, built from 15,000 tons of steel, is brand new and appears like some giant flying saucer — often illuminated in candy apple red, the Russian sport tradition — has landed and opened an enormous airport hangar of a door.
In dramatic style, Putin wants the world to know that, bolstered by its considerable energy dollars, Russia has returned as a powerful nation, confident in its destiny, different from the West and demonstrably not inferior.
The enterprise, however, is now severely tested by events Putin is unlikely to have anticipated.
Protecting the Games from the threats of radical separatists in the republics near Sochi, democratic protests against the Moscow-backed government in Ukraine across the border, and restriction on advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians all threaten to frustrate Putin’s desires.
“The message Putin and the Russian government is trying to send is that Russia is back and that it can pull off an international event like the Olympics,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“He wants to show the North Caucasus has been stabilized, and the fact that issues about sexuality are being emphasized now is driven more by political consideration. He wants to show Russia is different from the West.”
Region of unrest
Having promised the 2014 Sochi Games would be safe, despite their proximity to Russian republics that have sought independence for centuries, Putin brings the world to the Olympics with radical separatists suddenly ascendant. For months, they have repeatedly threatened to attack the Games. In December, they demonstrated their logistical capability, detonating bombs in Volgograd, about 200 miles from Sochi, killing 34.
In Ukraine, 600 miles northwest of Sochi, a Cold War-style conflict roils between democratic forces that support closer ties with the West and an authoritarian government, a client of Moscow bolstered by its supply of cheap energy. Some observers say it raises the specter of civil war.
Used to exerting no small amount of control in his country, Putin is likely to find that, especially when the nations of the world send their athletes, citizens and media to Russia, events will occur regardless of his intentions.
“When the decision was made to hold the Olympics in the North Caucasus, this was back in 2007 when there was a moment when the war in Chechnya had basically ended and before the real Islamist insurgency in the other parts of the North Caucasus had taken off,” Mankoff said.
“Of course, now, things in the North Caucasus have gotten worse, and that’s why there’s all of these security threats surrounding the Olympics.”
Having invited the world to prove a point, Putin risks a high profile demonstration of precisely what he said no longer exists: a violent insurgency wielding the strategy of terror.
In Kiev, the Ukrainians are in the streets like the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Lithuanians and others decades before them.
The disruption of life in the Ukrainian capital began in November when the government suspended negotiations on an omnibus trade agreement the European Union hoped to sign. The Ukrainian government is likely to join a new trade zone with Moscow as Putin strives to roll back the dissolution of the old Soviet bloc.
The protesters support the move toward the West. The West supports the protesters.
“They are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said lastweekend, echoing old familiar Cold War refrains. “And they have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone.”
The Russian government emphasizes restrictions on homosexuality, uniting a population that generally is socially conservative and drawing a distinction with the West as part of a grander aspiration: a re-alliance of the former Soviet bloc.
What Putin may succeed in doing, instead, is providing a platform for the world of sports to demonstrate tolerance.
Even the statements of Putin’s government about homosexuals have some roots in the effort to draw distinctions between Russia and the West in the former Soviet states where, generally, tolerating the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender citizens is little advocated, let alone widely practiced.
It is as if Putin is demonstrating that by joining the former European Union, the Eastern European states will have to countenance gay marriage.
Relations between the West and Russia have changed since the days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union when it was assumed, by Western governments and many in Russia, that Russia shared European values and objectives.
“That aspiration has slipped on both sides,” Mankoff said. “There’s less interest in Russia in moving toward a kind of convergence with the West, and I think there’s less interest in the West in spending the resources that would be involved in integrating Russia in that sense.
“And so, by emphasizing quote unquote traditional values, what Putin is trying to do is emphasize Russia’s distinctiveness from the West.”
The initiative engendered a response from the Obama administration, which named Billie Jean King and Brian Boitano to the committee representing the United States.
King has long been “out,” while Boitano recently said he is gay.
The reactions of both the U.S. government and Boitano give advocacy groups hope that while Putin intends to make homosexuality an issue, acceptance of diverse gender preference may be furthered by the Games.
“We don’t want athletes who will do anything to endanger their ability to compete in any way,” said Sam Marchione of Athletes Ally, a group joined by several dozen current and former Olympians that seeks to promote Olympic values in the context of diverse gender preferences.
“But we also feel that the way the issue should be looked at is that it’s really an opportunity to amplify the Olympic Charter, and principle six of the charter states that there will be no discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, country of origin, gender and they list it as ‘and otherwise,’ which means sexual orientation.”
Some athletes may feel comfortable with calling on Putin to repeal laws that discourage advocating for homosexual rights, or even counseling of gay, lesbian and transgender youths, who often have difficulties in any country.
The athletes have been told by the International Olympic Committee they have the right to free speech at their press conferences. But a display or protest is forbidden.
“We would never encourage and athlete to do anything outside of their comfort zones,” Marchione said. “If an athlete doesn’t want to speak out, they shouldn’t speak out.
“In terms of the action part, I think the IOC has weighed out what the repercussions for that are. And that becomes an individual decision.”