Sochi Olympics: One man show?

If Vladimir Putin hoped that hosting the 2014 Olympic Games would invite the world’s admiration, he was wrong.

Environmentalists have complained about the destruction of protected areas for the sake of the Olympics [Getty Images]

A super-cute stray dog was leading the Olympic torch relay procession last week as it approached the main square at Krasnaya Polyana – a skiing resort outside Sochi, where much of the Olympic events are taking place. The route of the relay was lined up with grim-looking policemen in black uniforms. A crowd of a few hundred people produced lukewarm cheers as an athlete carrying the torch appeared on the horizon.

Many people in the crowd had been brought in by sponsors of the Games.They had spent a couple of hours prior to the ceremony listening to cheesy songs dedicated to the sponsors – a song about Russian railways followed by a song about a Russian insurance company followed by a song about Coca-Cola. Locals? Inside the Olympic bubble, it seems like they inhabit some other planet.

Sochi games most expensive ever

Having confused the Olympic shuttle with a badly overcrowded local bus, I hop on the latter only to find myself stuck in a desperate traffic jam, in which I lose an hour. That’s a daily reality for local residents, invisible to people involved in the games who whizz back and forth along the empty “Olympic freeway”.

My hotel is one of a zillion nondescript blocs forming a mindboggling sprawl, which covers what once used to be a floodplain stretching between the part of Sochi known as Adler and the border of Georgia’s breakaway district of Abkhazia.

A protected zone since 1911, Imereti marshes used to be a unique habitat[Ru] for a few dozen rare birds and plants. From my window, I can see bewildered storks helplessly circling over grassy spots between the buildings in search of their old nesting grounds.

“With their endemic flora and fauna, the marshes have been completely destroyed to give way to the Olympic Park,” says Russian Wikipedia.

The authorities brutally clamped down on local environmentalists who had voiced concern about the destruction of protected areas for the sake of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. One activist was forced to emigrate, another has been imprisoned for the duration of the Games for “cursing at a bus stop”. He is also facing imprisonment for writing anti-government graffiti on the fence of the local governor’s palatial residence.

Between ordinary and mediocre

Russian visitors in Sochi are divided over what they see. For some, particularly for wide-eyed provincials and Kremlin-sponsored bloggers, it’s a wow – a city upgraded and spruced-up to a level unseen elsewhere in the country. For well-travelled middle-class Muscovites, it is just a place brought up to the standards that have been a norm in former Communist countries of Central Europe for over a decade. Considering the cost of the Sochi Olympics, which exceeds that of all winter games combined, one would expect something mindbogglingly spectacular. But the visual reality of Sochi ranges between ordinary and mediocre.

Considering the cost of the Sochi Olympics, which exceeds that of all winter games combined, one would expect something mindbogglingly spectacular. But the visual reality of Sochi ranges between ordinary and mediocre.

Unlike in Central Europe, there is far too much tasteless modern architecture that reminds of hastily-built tourist ghettos of Hurghada (Egypt) or Antalya (Turkey). The whole place seems like a movie set that will start decaying and falling apart once the show is over.

Public opinion over the games appears to be permeated by cynicism. Asked by Levada-Centre what was the main motive for Russia to host the Olympics, 38 percent of Russians said that the games allowed corrupt officials to enrich themselves. Much fewer people (23 percent) said the games are an honour and a source of pride for the nation. Finally, 17 percent said they help Vladimir Putin to improve his image.

On Friday, I watched the opening ceremony on a giant screen at the main official live site located at Sochi’s sea terminal. There was a stampede at the entrance as hundreds of people tried to break through only three security gates. 

Yet, as the truly magnificient show started unfolding, the fenced-off square was half-empty. When the Russian anthem was played, no one started singing. It was a sharp contrast with scenes I’ve seen in Kiev, Ukraine – where at the height of anti-government protests, I was bumping into crowds singing the national anthem every half an hour, in the squares and even on the metro.

Political Olympians

It’s not like Russians are not proud of their country holding the games, but there is an awkward feeling of alienation and disconnection from the grim realities of Russian politics. The entire show seems to be staged for the audience of one man – Vladimir Putin – and a small, close-knit elite which leads an entirely different life than the rest of the people.

Of six Russian athletes who carried the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony, four were MPs from the ruling United Russia party responsible for harsh laws banning the adoption of orphans by US citizens and “gay propaganda”, while another one participated in the government-backed gay-bashing campaign. But for all of the Russian government’s anti-Western rhetoric, one of these athletes, Maria Sharapova, is a permanent resident in the US, while two others lived in America for a long time and have been alleged to retain homes there. The latter include Irina Rodnina, who had published a racist collage insulting US President Barack Obama.

The Sochi Olympics were destined to become a moment of personal glory for Putin. But the world is not exactly celebrating his success – Western leaders are effectively boycotting the games, while Russian liberals fume over accusations of corruption and stubbornly refuse to partake in the patriotic fervour.

In a situation like that, other people would probably think there is something wrong with them. But not Putin. His natural response to criticism is to hit the critic harder. Thus, a few days before the games, Dozhd, Russia’s only truly independent television channel, came under immense pressure that brought it on the verge of closure. Shortly before the games end, the verdict will be announced in the case of Bolotnaya prisoners, who are expected to get lengthy sentences for participating in anti-government protest.

Putin hoped Sochi would make humanity freeze in admiration, but instead the world is turning its back on the Russian leader, leaving him an isolated and increasingly dangerous pariah in charge of a traumatised nation and half of the world’s nukes.

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.