It’s Gold or Nothing for Putin in Sochi
A week before the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, I recall watching the television debates regarding what we can expect from the big event.
After a dismal 7th place at the 2006 Olympics, the Canadian men's ice hockey team was under huge pressure to deliver on their nation's hopes this time – especially on home ground. Deliver they did, beating their arch rivals, the United States, in a thrilling final match that included overtime.
The other question that the pundits discussed was how many medals the Alpine skiing stars Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal would grab.
Four years later, in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics, what I hear are debates about separatist insurgency, terrorism, and security. The sporting component has been pushed to the back of the agenda. Even the fact that there is little snow in this Black Sea city, with daytime temperatures around 8 degrees, seems to be causing little worry.
As one CNN reporter put it, "the Sochi Olympics will go down in history as the most closely associated with the image of the host country's leader". The cult of Vladimir Putin will surely stand right up there with the Olympic torch, once the games get under way on February 7th.
Alongside his frequent visits to monitor the construction progress in Sochi, the Russian President has also been fighting an internal war to eliminate radical Islamist fractions in neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan. The three terrorist attacks in Volgograd in October and December served as a wake-up call.
It is evident that Putin is skating on thin ice. However, this is a carefully planned and conscious political move. Nominating a city situated in the backyard of historically unstable autonomous republics with thriving separatist insurgency, the Russian president is aiming to defy his critics. To win big, one must bet big, after all.
There is also one other element behind staging the Olympics in such proximity to these hubs of terrorism. Taking advantage of the widespread fear of attacks, Putin has been able to shift gears in his war against the rebels. Under different circumstances, he is likely to have been criticized by the western powers for his ruthless crackdown and use of force in Chechnya and Dagestan. Now, with western athletes and delegations being threatened by the insurgency, Putin can not only get away with such tactics, but is in fact encouraged to strike hard at the center of terrorism.
The criteria for successful Olympics have been lowered to such a level, that anything other than a fatal blast in the Olympic village would be deemed a success. Should the games pass smoothly in terms of security, the biggest gold medal at the end will go to Putin himself.