The International Olympic Committee, the snooty gang that stages summer and winter world-sports extravaganzas at four-year intervals, is nothing if not predictable. Those guys never have met a dictatorship they didn’t not only like but also trip over themselves to support. To the Olympic motto of citius, altius, fortius (“faster, higher, stronger” for those who don’t speak Latin) should be added a forth word, for whatever the old Romans called despotism. Nero, Caligula, Commodus—the IOC would have jumped into bed with any of them.
The 2014 Winter Os begin Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, under the auspices of that put-upon land’s latest political strong man, Vladimir Putin. Yes, the gulags are gone and political dissidents no longer are dispatched with bullets to the brain in the basement of the Lubyanka Building, but anyone disputing pale-browed Vlad had better keep his or her bag packed for a prison trip, sometimes after being beaten on the street by thugs who never are caught. The ex-KGB operative learned his lessons well enough to be able to run things in the old way without the old, collectivist rhetoric.
Olympia’s dictators’ waltz began with the award of both the 1936 winter and summer Games to Nazi Germany. The other members of the original Axis of Evil were similarly blessed, Imperial Japan with the summer and winter Games of 1940 and Fascist Italy with the 1944 winter fest, although those events were cancelled by the war those nations helped start. Closer to present times, the Soviet Union got to host the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow and the dour committee that runs China welcomed the world to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Idi Amin’s Uganda might have gotten a nod had he stuck around long enough.
The IOC’s real motto is politics shmolitics, as long as the trains run on time. It’s easier for it to deal with a guy—or small handful of guys—than with the messy cast of characters any democracy presents. Build venues lickety split? Sweep the Olympic area of people who might make tourists uncomfortable? Clean the air, if only for a couple of weeks? Put a dozen cops on every street for 100 miles around? Poof, it’s done, and let the Games begin.
Putin has gone all out for the production aimed at showcasing his “new” Russia and himself, spending a reported $50 billion on stadiums and infrastructure. That’s a record for any Olympics and an impressive sum even if many of those dollars did wind up in the pockets of his cronies. Lately he’s tried to get on the world’s good side by having his ministers say soothing words about easing enforcement of Russia’s anti-gay laws for the duration, and he’s opened his dungeons a crack, releasing the ex-billionaire critic Mikhail Khodorkovsy and the all-girl band Pussy Riot, which in 2012 scandalized Moscovites with an impromptu punk-rock show in a cathedral. But hey, with a name like Pussy Riot it’s a miracle the police let them off the Metro.
What Putin’s billions will buy remains to be seen as O-day approaches. Sochi was an odd Winter Games choice because the Black Sea city is best known as a subtropical summer resort with average day-time February high temperature of around 50, so keeping the snow and ice cold might be a bigger problem than keeping spectators warm.
The main run-up to the Games, the traditional Olympic torch relay, was more comic than epic, casting doubt on the efficacy of Russian technology (surprise!). Manufactured in Siberia by a company called KrasMash, which ordinarily makes ballistic missiles, the torches went out a dozen times by confirmed count and 50 or so times reportedly, one having to be relit by a guard’s cigarette lighter. Three times torch fuel spilled onto carriers’ clothing and caught fire. One poor torch bearer—a 73-year-old coach—staggered away and died of a heart attack moments after his brief stint.
As always, the quality of sport in the Winter Games also shouldn’t be taken for granted. These WOs will consist of 98 events in 15 sports—many with small constituencies-- against more than 300 events in 26 sports in the Summer Games. Television dictates that each span 17 days and three weekends, so the dirty little secret of the WOs is that on many days not much is on the card.
The O bosses have padded the schedule in their usual way, by adding events that really are variations of existing ones, like the three-legged and sack races of company picnics. Letting women do dumb things men do, such as ski jumping, put one more event on the tube, and pirating various daredevil stunts from ESPN’s X-Games added several more. The main suspense in these centers not on who’ll win but on whether contestants will land feet or head first.
There will be “team” figure skating, which doesn’t involve teams but the usual individual and pairs performances with the scores added together. The question of whether figure skating is a sport goes undebated at O time. If it is, so is ballet.
Races mostly are singles or pairs against the clock, with the real drama being in the tick tick ticking in (usually) the lower right-hand corner of your TV screen. Hans Brinker would have been dismayed. Then there’s bobsledding, a 90-mph carnival ride in a $50,000 sled with a gold medal (not a brass ring) as the prize, or luge, which is bobsledding with no protective chassis.
Look out below, but as they say, sometimes you win and sometimes you luge.