Remember the year 2007? Russia was starting to look like a world power again. Its economy was growing at a record 8.5 percent annual rate. Political life had stabilized. Support for President Vladimir Putin was stratospheric. The decade-long Chechen rebellion seemed to have been suppressed. To top it off, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Russia’s Black Sea resort, Sochi.
In many respects, it was a strange choice of venue: Sunny Sochi has beautiful mountains, but little or no snow. It is also 1,370km south of Moscow with few direct flights from Europe, while the trip from the US can involve up to four legs.
However, in 2007, Russians were becoming more optimistic about their future. Addressing the IOC, Putin argued that awarding Russia the Games would not only allow the country to showcase its post-Soviet achievements, it would also help it through its political and economic transition.
Nothing seemed too difficult for Putin — even mouthing unnecessary democratic platitudes for a committee whose members had already awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.
However, once construction got under way, the realities of modern Russia could not be so easily hidden.
The colossal project, which cost more than US$50 billion — more than all previous Winter Olympics combined — was expected to turn Sochi into a sporting paradise, packed with arenas and a new airport. Instead, corruption and construction accidents have plagued preparations, with hotels still unfinished just days before the opening ceremony.
Delay and waste are common in Olympic preparations — Greece in 2004 is an obvious example, and Brazil in 2016 appears to be experiencing similar problems — but Russia is proving to be an unsuitable host for other reasons.
For starters, there are concerns about Putin’s own political legitimacy. His controversial and unconstitutional re-election to a third presidential term was condemned internationally and triggered anti-government protests across Russia.
Putin responded to those he considered political enemies by arresting and jailing protesters, including the all-girl rock band Pussy Riot, following so-called “show trials” — with the Olympics approaching, there have been recent “show pardons.”
Such episodes have contributed to a general air of intolerance across Russia, fueled in no small part by Kremlin-incited chauvinism. A government-sponsored anti-gay propaganda law, which criminalizes same-sex couples, has caused outrage abroad. Local activists have even advised gay athletes not to display signs of their sexual orientation while in Russia.
Similarly, though the Olympics should be an occasion for national pride, foreign — and in particular American — athletes have been told to avoid showing their team colors when outside the grounds. In fact, they have been warned not to wander beyond Sochi’s so-called “ring of steel” security perimeter and the watchful gaze of black-and-gray-clad police officers, even though Olympians typically like to explore local sights.
None of this engenders a sense of Olympic solidarity and international friendship. It gets worse. The authorities must also contend with threats from Islamist insurgents from Chechnya, who are now operating elsewhere in the North Caucasus region, a mere 320km from Sochi. The “black widows” — wives of Islamist fighters killed in the Kremlin’s pacification campaign — are believed to be preparing retaliatory suicide missions at airports, train stations and bus depots.