After a journey of joy across nine time zones and into space, the Olympic torch relay is approaching something the Winter Games’ organizers and Russia’s leaders didn’t plan for and certainly didn’t want: A city in mourning.
The Russian city of Volgograd is burying its dead this week — 34 victims of twin suicide bombings that went off just 400 miles from where the Sochi Games will be held. And in less than three weeks, the Olympic torch reaches Volgograd, stop 117 on an epic route toward the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
These Olympics are being dubbed “Putin’s Games.” For Russia’s top man, eager to impress the world and show he can pull off a major multinational event safely and successfully, that moniker could turn out to be a compliment or a curse.
President Vladimir Putin’s reputation on the global stage has already been battered in the run-up to the Olympics by the denunciation of Russia’s new anti-gay law, boycott calls, mounting costs and environmental concerns.
But more than anything, particularly with the soccer World Cup to come in 2018 across the nation, Russia has to ensure Sochi is remembered only for sporting feats.
“Hardly anyone will perceive the games as a festive occasion if there are victims and devastation elsewhere,” said Georgy Satarov, a former aide to President Boris Yeltsin.
For some competitors, anxieties about staying safe are already overriding podium ambitions and thoughts of post-competition sightseeing trips.
“I’m just going to stay in the bubble,” U.S. speedskater Tucker Fredricks said. “I’m going to stay in my room, and go to the oval, and go back to my room. And that’s it.”
Teammate Jilleanne Rookard said Russia will want to avoid a “national embarrassment” at all cost, but she was still concerned about the nonathletes who will not be offered the same level of protection as Olympians.
“We worry about our parents, our family, our friends,” Rookard said. “They’re going to be normal tourists. I’m scared for them.”
This isn’t how Putin wants the world to be talking about his pet project.
Having aligned himself so closely with the costliest-ever Olympics, Putin’s legacy could be defined by this $50 billion-plus sporting extravaganza.
One party has already been canceled. Fireworks and festivities to usher in the Olympic year were called off in Volgograd after the bombings.
One suicide bomber blew herself up at Volgograd’s main railway station last Sunday, and another on a bus during Monday’s rush hour.
After visiting the scene on Wednesday and receiving assurances that security was being strengthened, Putin returned to Sochi on Friday to show it was business as usual, even taking to the slopes with his skis.
Putin will be hoping to confound widespread trepidation about the first Olympics in Russia since the 1980 Summer Games, which were overshadowed by a U.S. boycott. This time around, the Kremlin is frustrated that U.S. President Barack Obama will not go to Sochi.
On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to offer his condolences for the Volgograd attacks and to say the U.S. “stands with the Russian people against terrorism,” said Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.
Hagel also assured Shoigu that the United States “stands ready to provide security assistance to Russia for the Winter Olympics, if requested,” Kirby said in Washington.
Putin’s enthusiasm for lavish investment in Sochi appears to be in marked contrast to the Moscow Olympics build-up. Just a year after winning the bid in 1974, Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev questioned whether the hosting rights could be handed back.
According to recently declassified reports, Brezhnev wrote a note to his future successor Konstantin Chernenko, warning the Olympics would cost a lot and could bring about scandals that could tarnish the country’s image.
Similar concerns are being voiced globally in 2014, if not in the Kremlin. And the Olympic leadership still insist Russia will be able to deliver safe games.
“When we come to Sochi, it will be impossible for the terrorists to do anything,” said Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian IOC member who helped organize the 1994 Lillehammer Games. “The village will be sealed off from the outside world. Security has been our priority No. 1 ever since Sochi got the games … for Russia, this is a matter of national pride.”
Although no group has claimed responsibility for Volgograd, the bombings highlighted just how vulnerable the Winter Games could be to militant attacks — particularly from the North Caucasus region, some 200 miles from the terror sites.
Separatists seeking to carve out a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the North Caucasus have mounted attacks across Russia for nearly two decades, following wars between separatist Chechen rebels and Russian forces.
And a Chechen rebel leader has previously called on Islamist militants to target civilians at the Olympics with a large-scale attack that could undermine Putin.
“They are trying to hurt the political position of Putin and the Moscow regime,” said Peter Knoope, director at the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. “They are trying to hurt the image that Russia is a peaceful, balanced and harmonious society … and show the world that there is obviously a lack of control of the security situation.”
The Volgograd suicide bombers highlighted the relative ease of hitting landmarks away from the heavily secured Olympic venues in Sochi, where drones will patrol the skies, robotic vehicles will be on the ground, and patrol boats on the water.
“One of the biggest challenges is how to maintain the wider national security levels given the focus on Sochi,” said Andrew Amery, who oversaw security of the 2012 London Olympics. “This is an issue that is always realized early in the planning and … the risk of course is at the perimeter as we saw in the recent tragic events.”
The decision to go to Russia was a concern for the family and friends of Ian Wildgust, who is traveling from England to volunteer at the cross-country skiing and biathlon venue.
“People are asking, ‘Are you going to be safe? Are we going to see you again?’” the 38-year-old business consultant said.
Then there’s the international concern over human rights issues in Russia, and whether the tough security climate could serve as an excuse for further suppressing dissidents during the games.
“There is a concern the incident in Volgograd will increase pressure on people, not trying to be terrorists, but using their rights for freedom of expression to protest,” said Sylvia Schenk, senior sports adviser at anti-corruption organization Transparency International.
There are signs that Putin is not deaf to the international outcry.
In an attempt to defuse criticism of the country’s human rights record and a recent law banning promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, Russia appeared to bow to international pressure by pledging to set up public protest zones in Sochi.
On Saturday, Putin also rescinded a blanket ban on demonstrations in and around Sochi during the games — a move welcomed by the IOC as “part of the Russian authorities’ plans to ensure free expression during the games.”
It followed a series of surprising moves by Putin in recent weeks, when he first pardoned an old foe, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allowed an amnesty that saw two Pussy Riot punk band members released from prison, and dropped charges against 30 Greenpeace anti-oil drilling activists.
Those were three issues that had rights groups up in arms, although perhaps the biggest source of outrage has been the controversial legislation that has been described as an anti-gay law. So far, though, there are no signs that any athletes or delegations will boycott the Olympics because of the law.
“With the anti-gay law and the terrorist bombings there has been much negative press,” said Wildgust, who also volunteered at the 2012 Olympics. “But I had the same feeling about London, everyone saying, ‘We’ll never make it good.’ But when it started, people got involved and it became positive, rather than negative.” report.