Seven years ago, Vladimir Putin traveled all the way to Guatemala to woo Olympic leaders with his grandiose vision: hosting the Winter Games in Russia’s little-known Black Sea summer resort of Sochi.
Putin’s personal pitch — delivered partly in English and French — did the trick as Sochi beat out bids from South Korea and Austria for the right to stage the 2014 Games on the so-called “Russian Riviera.”
Putin’s political influence and Russia’s might bowled over the International Olympic Committee on that day.
It was a risky choice then and it shapes up as even riskier now.
With the opening ceremony less than two weeks away, Putin’s prestige and his country’s reputation are at stake — riding on a $51 billion mega-project meant to showcase a modern Russia but overshadowed by a barrage of concerns over terrorism, gay rights, human rights, corruption, waste and overspending.
No other Winter Games has faced such an acute terror threat. No other Winter Olympics has been so engulfed in politics. No other recent Olympics has been so closely associated with one man — Putin, the “captain” of the Sochi team.
Amid a politically charged atmosphere and ominous security climate, can Putin and Russia deliver a safe and successful Olympics? Can Sochi defy the grim predictions and dazzle the world with well-organized games featuring shiny new venues, picturesque mountains and the world’s best winter sports athletes?
Lest we forget, the Olympics are also supposed to be about sports and athletes: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and other NHL stars competing for their home countries on the hockey rink; snowboard great Shaun White doing new gravity-defying flips and twists; South Korean figure skating queen Yuna Kim performing graceful magic on the ice; American teen sensation Mikaela Shiffrin zipping through the slalom gates.
About 3,000 athletes from more than 80 countries will be competing in 98 medal events. Twelve new events are on the program, with women’s ski jumping making its debut after being rejected for inclusion at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The medals race is likely to be between Norway, the United States, Canada and Germany. The Russians, coming off their worst ever Winter Games in Vancouver, are determined to bounce back on home territory. A gold medal from the Ovechkin-led hockey team would be the ultimate prize for a country that hasn’t won the Olympic title since a “Unified Team” of former Soviet republics triumphed in 1992.
“Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians,” Ovechkin said.
Sochi will also offer up its share of human-interest story lines:
— the return of the Jamaican bobsled team for the first time since 2002, rekindling the feel-good story of 1988 that inspired the film “Cool Runnings.”
— track and field stars Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams switching from the Summer Olympics to Winter Games as members of the U.S. women’s bobsled team.
— British-based classical-pop musician Vanessa-Mae trading her violin for a pair of skis to compete for Thailand, her father’s native country.
— and, yes, those wild and crazy pants worn by the Norwegian men’s curling team — red, white and blue zig-zag patterns this time.
For now, the world’s focus remains squarely on the terror danger posed by the Islamic insurgency in the Northern Caucasus. An Islamic militant group in Dagestan claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed 34 people in late December in Volgograd and threatened to attack the games in Sochi.
In spite of all the criticism, IOC members believe the Russians deserve the chance to prove the choice of Sochi was the right one.
“Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1980,” Canadian member Dick Pound said. “They are certainly capable of organizing a Winter Olympics. They have created a winter sports complex out of virtually nothing and they did it in 5-6 years. My guess is they will deliver good games.”