Vladimir Putin intended the Winter Olympics opening this week in Sochi to be a showcase for the revived Russia he believes he has created over the past 15 years: an economic power and a conservative counterpoint to the liberal and secular West. In reality, Sochi will provide, at best, another example of how awarding the Games to autocratic governments like that of Putin only reinforces their worst practices while undermining what should be the Olympics’ commitment to human freedom and tolerance.
Even before the Opening Ceremonies, Sochi has become a symbol of the corrupt excess and misplaced priorities of Putin’s regime, which squandered a record $51 billion on the Caucasian resort and yet failed to complete hotels and other needed facilities by this week. Much of the money was lavished on cronies of Putin, including a former childhood judo partner, and opposition leaders say tens of billions were stolen. It’s hard to reconcile this Stalinist excess with Russia’s needs, as an emerging economy, for private and foreign investment, the rule of law and pragmatic economic management.
Even more disturbing is the shadow cast over the Games by Putin’s repellent embrace of homophobia — gays will be welcome in Sochi, he said, provided they “leave kids alone” — and restrictions on free speech and protests. Like Beijing in 2008, Sochi will have designated protest zones, but Russian dissenters who manage to penetrate massive security deployments and obtain an official permit will find themselves 7 miles from the nearest Olympic site.
President Barack Obama and other Western leaders rightly chose not to sanction this spectacle with their presence. Many of the athletes and spectators who do attend will be worried about the possibility of terrorist attacks, especially following reports that “black widows” — female would-be suicide bombers — have infiltrated the city. While such threats are an unfortunate aspect of all Olympics, they have been compounded by Putin’s hubristic promotion of Sochi, which lies adjacent to Caucasian republics where brutal repression by Russian security forces has spawned one of the world’s most virulent homegrown terrorist movements.
Predictably, the International Olympic Committee is defending Putin on every aspect of his malfeasance, from the treatment of protesters and gays to the wasteful spending and unfinished hotels. IOC member Mario Pescante of Italy criticized the United States for including openly gay representatives in its official delegation. IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters recently that he is “sleeping very well” in spite of the terrorism alerts and compared Sochi to Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Olympics a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
We hope all who compete in or attend the Games are kept safe. But few are likely to confuse Mr. Putin’s muddy police encampment with Salt Lake City, Vancouver or other host cities in democratic nations where Olympics have been built on civic participation, private sponsorship and the rule of law. The enduring problem of the Olympic movement and its leadership is that, like Bach, it is unable to make that distinction.