Vladimir Putin wanted the Sochi Winter Olympics to be “a showcase of modern Russia,” said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. “He has succeeded, though not as he intended.” Hosting the Games will cost cash-strapped Russia $51 billion, “more than every previous winter Olympics combined,” but you wouldn’t know it from Putin’s Potemkin version of a world-class Olympic venue. Packs of emaciated stray dogs roam the streets of Sochi; undrinkable brown tap water dribbles out of hotel faucets; skiers and snowboarders are fuming over the poorly engineered courses and 63-degree temperatures that have left the man-made snow mushy and dangerous. During the histrionic Opening Ceremony, an electronic malfunction produced four instead of five Olympic rings. What an embarrassment, said Jackson Diehl in WashingtonPost.com. The preening Putin wanted to use the Sochi Games to reintroduce the world to “a confident, economically booming power whose influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is coming back.” Instead, the Olympics have served to shine a spotlight on Russia’s corruption, medieval new anti-gay laws, and the ever-present threat of terrorism from the Caucasus region he has so brutally repressed. Whichever nation skis and slides and twirls its way to the most medals in these Games, Putin and Russia have already lost.
There’s “something mean-spirited” in all this Olympics schadenfreude, said Julia Ioffe in The New Republic. Western journalists act as if every lukewarm shower or broken bathroom door were further proof of the hilarious dysfunction at the heart of New Russia. “Look at these stupid savages, they can’t do anything right,” we gloat, forgetting the litany of problems that have plagued every Olympiad of the modern era. Remember the bomb that injured over 100 people at the Atlanta Games in 1996? said Joe Concha in TheDailyBeast.com.How about the terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Berlin Games? Despite some minor glitches, the Sochi Games have been “captivating, compelling, and visually stunning.”
Nonetheless, Sochi is “a vanity project,” said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. Like other dictators before him, Russia’s new czar seized on the Olympics as a propaganda tool; their ultimate purpose is to distract the Russian public from the country’s economic dysfunction, dropping life expectancy, and political repression. Even Putin’s perverse decision to stage the Games in Sochi, a subtropical beach resort that’s his favorite getaway, was an act of enormous self-indulgence. If “authoritarian egotism” were an Olympic event, Putin “would win the gold medal going away.”
He may yet regret staging these Games, said Louise Branson in USA Today. The Olympics “have a way of laying bare political realities, particularly in dictatorial societies.” The failure of the 1980 Moscow Games, which dozens of nations boycotted over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, sent “shock waves” through Soviet society, as citizens saw their government in a new, unflattering light. “It was one of the defining moments that helped push the Soviet Union to its collapse a decade later.” Among Russians, “Putin’s biggest asset was always his strongman image,” said Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.com.The worldwide chorus of mockery and criticism—which has reached Russians through the Internet—has “already cracked that image.” If one day Russians find the strength and courage to evict their cheesy, bare-chested parody of a ruler from the Kremlin, “the seeds will have been sown in Sochi.”