Gil LeBreton

January 9, 2014

Controversy surrounds upcoming Sochi Games

Putin’s stamp — and rubles — are all over the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Other than being a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, and housing accused traitor Edward Snowden, and that Syria thing, and the stories about construction corruption and his country’s new anti-gay laws, there is little reason to think that Russian president Vladimir Putin won’t put on a fine Winter Olympics next month.

Pardon my sarcasm. I love the Olympics. I just hate to see the Games exploited and rolled like a sailor on shore leave.

But this is the bed — soon to be converted into public condos! — that the Olympics has chosen to make for itself these days. The International Olympic Committee ignored the pleas of human rights groups and awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.

Sochi, by comparison, is more like Six Flags Over Russia. The devil may be in the details, but President Putin is going to make every effort to make sure you don’t peek behind the curtains.

Four weeks from Friday , the Sochi Winter Olympics are scheduled to begin with the opening ceremonies. Just a hunch, but I predict that security will be tight.

Sochi, situated on the Black Sea, is 1,007 miles due south of Moscow. As a recent BBC report noted, most Russians have never been to Sochi, even fewer think they will ever go to Sochi, and a notably sizable percentage said they had never heard of Sochi until the IOC awarded the summer resort town the Games in 2007.

Enter Putin and his friends in the construction business, according to scandalous reports.

From an initial budget of $12 billion, the price tag for the Sochi Winter Games has climbed to $51 billion — more than all of the previous Winter Olympics combined.

But why should the average U.S. viewer, watching Bob Costas and Matt Lauer on NBC, care how many rubles it costs?

Gleaming new venues, scrubbed streets, the Caucasus Mountains in the distance, 12 months of snow stored for when needed — Putin has spared no expense in welcoming the world back to Mother Russia. And to Sochi, in particular.

If all goes according to plan, 5,500 athletes from 85 nations will compete next month for Olympic medals in 98 events.

For Team USA, the outlook loomed as fuzzy, even before gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn dropped out to recover from torn knee ligaments. The best of the remaining U.S. ski chances center on 36-year-old Bode Miller, a comeback hero four years ago in Vancouver; giant slalom specialist Ted Ligety; and teenager Mikaela Shiffrin from Colorado.

If it’s the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner that stirs you, focus on the American long-track speedskaters, led again by gold medalist Shani Davis.

The Olympic hockey tournament looms as a classic, with defending champion Canada as the favorite, but host Russia determined not to disappoint the home fans and ex-Colonel Putin.

What could possibly go wrong?

Politics, in some form or another, have been a part of every Olympics since 776 B.C. The IOC, since its Salt Lake bid reforms, has seemed to be well-meaning in its global agendas.

But Sochi, not far from Chechnya, is in a rough neighborhood. A guy that has been billed as the “Osama bin Laden of Russia,” Doku Umarov, reportedly urged his followers to “do your utmost” to disrupt the Sochi Games.

The Kremlin website posted a notice last week saying organized demonstrations would be allowed during the Games at designated locations, as long as they had official permission. The measure is said to be the government’s attempt to stifle anyone wanting to protest the country’s anti-gay laws, or to embarrass Putin, specifically.

I love the Olympics. I’ll watch. And for the first time in 30 years, I won’t be covering them. I’ll be watching at home, just like most Russians.

Let the Games begin, President Putin. This could get very interesting.

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