The Double-Edged Swords of Sochi
As the first week of the Winter Olympiad in Russia drew to a close, Russia's balance sheet looked rather bleak. It seemed that every piece of good news, and there were three very impressive high notes, was outnumbered at least five to one by horror stories. But there was still a decent chance for Russia to emerge from the games having covered itself with a decent amount of glory.
First and foremost, the good news was that, knock on wood, there had not been a single incident of much-feared Caucasian terrorism either in Sochi or anywhere else in Russia, nor any noteworthy incidents of goonish behavior by omnipresent security toward Olympic visitors.
But (1) the skiing and snowboarding venues were unsafe as built, with some athletes pulling out in terror while others sustained horrific injuries and had to be carried from the slopes; (2) public relations were abysmal -- Russia crazily rushed to ban gay parents from adopting while the games were underway, stories about corruption continued to pour forth, and U.S. opinion of Russia and Putin was revealed to have descended to a twenty-year low; (3) revered Russian author Mikhail Shishkin trashed the Sochi games in the pages of the Wall Street Journal; (4) embarrassingly warm weather destroyed the quality of the half-pipe snowboard event, the men's slalom event, and the spirit of winter; and (5) not only did the stands at many events remain half-empty, but none of the hoped-for tourism flow to Moscow materialized, either.
Second on the good-news front, Russia retook gold in its beloved event of pairs figure skating, with a charismatic and glamorous young couple. Stars were born. A Russian oligarch offered them a palatial penthouse in Sochi if they'd live there and start a training center. The brand-new ice stadium glittered. Russia had a real Olympic moment.
But (1) the men's figure skating competition was probably the worst in Olympic history (the "winner" fell twice during his long routine, but his competition was even worse); (2) Russia lost its round-robin hockey match against the hated USA in a soul-crushing shootout, and then it barely managed to squeak past tiny Slovakia after its vaunted cadre of NHL superstars were held scoreless through overtime and forced into a second shootout; (3) the now-infamous fifth snowflake refused to turn into a ring during the opening ceremonies, and the Kremlin tried to hide it from the Russian people -- a permanent, memorable, worldwide humiliation; (4) Russia lost devastating sprints to the finish in both biathlon and cross-country events, getting bumped twice from the medal stand; and (5) the City of Sochi, and Russia itself, proved incapable of generating anything in the way of local color, and the world yawned.
The final bit of good news for Russia was that for a few moments at the end of the week, it seized the lead in the total medal count before that was wrested from its grip by the USA and then by the Netherlands. Russia remained clearly competitive for the title. Secondary to gold medals, granted, but still a fantastic feat for Russia if it could be achieved.
But (1) Russia was still tied with lowly Poland for gold medals and had only two fully legitimate ones -- pairs figure skating and skeleton (the other two in its meager tally came in the just-invented sport of team figure skating and in a speed-skating event won by a Korean defector); (2) a Russian defector to Switzerland (who fled Russia in protest of abuse by the Russian sports establishment) won gold in the half-pipe snowboard event, thumbing his nose at his former country all the while; (3) a Russian snowboarder competed with the Kremlin-reviled Pussy Riot performance artists emblazoned on his board, and drew international media attention; (4) in a stunning blow, Russia's lone male figure skating contender, Evgeny Plushenko, dropped out just before commencing his short routine, and a feeding frenzy followed from the Russian nationalists; and (5) as if just to round things out, a Russian defector at the men's figures competition used Russian music and Russian dance moves in his routine, while the winning Russian pairs team used British music.
Russians should clearly thank their lucky stars for the deluge of Western reporting regarding terror threats (which reporting Russians bitterly attacked). Such reporting radically reduced expectations for these games, and made it possible for Russians to claim success merely by avoiding bloodshed. Had this reporting not occurred, and were Sochi being judged by ordinary standards, it might come off as one of the most disastrous Olympic stagings in recent memory.
More importantly, the security crackdown in Sochi is clearly a double-edged sword. With every day that passes, something nobody had anticipated is becoming more and more clear: Sochi is a Kremlin laboratory for a neo-Soviet police state that is developing technology that could easily supplant the "boots on the ground" approach relied on by Stalin and permit the Putin dictatorship to establish a totalitarian regime.
Putin continues to aggressively curtail internet freedom, and he is rapidly gaining the capacity to eavesdrop on every Russian conversation, which would have been Stalin's dream. He's even manipulating Edward Snowden for propaganda purposes, trying to make it appear that Russia is fighting against the very type of Big Brother state that it is actually working feverishly to implement.
In other words, shocking as it may be to contemplate, the absence of terrorism at Sochi may be a harbinger of doom for Russia if it signals that something even more ominous than terrorism is being implemented by the regime itself.
There's still hope for Russia in the second week to emerge from the closing ceremonies with considerable luster. Perhaps the dark cloud of miscues will part in addition to Russia remaining terror-free. It has already exceeded its (admittedly wretched) total and gold medal counts from Vancouver 2010, and will look to improve on them substantially.
Though likely denied a playoff bye, on February 23 the men's hockey team could still win through to gold (the women's hockey team was undefeated in round-robin play but then was summarily ousted from gold-medal contention by Switzerland in a first-round playoff shutout -- it then knocked off Japan in relegation and still has a chance at a bronze). And three days before that, on February 20, teeny-bopper Julia Lipnitskaya has the chance to become the breakout star of the games, if she can repeat her glowing team performance and take gold in ladies' individual figure skating.
But even if it happens, such glory for Russia would, again, be a double-edged sword. Putin would surely use it as cover for even more draconian crackdowns on liberty and even more aggressive foreign policy moves against the United States. Russia has already paid a stunningly heavy financial price for the Olympics, and the price it may have to pay in freedom could make that look like chump change.
But then, why shouldn't he, if the world in general and Barack Obama in particular is going to let him get away with it?
Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.