LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — People are going to take this as an anti-Russian rant, so let me establish, right off, that it is not. In fact, I'm a Russophile, or whatever you might call someone who has revered Russian literature — Checkov, Nabokov, Gogol, Turgenev, not to mention the heavy hitters, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. The Russians have made their contribution to humankind.
But the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which begin on Feb. 7, will not be counted among those great contributions. On display here could well be one of the great confluences of ignorance, power and corruption of our time.
And our time has had a few.
Think about this. We're getting ready to have a Super Bowl with temperatures in the 20s. At the site of the Winter Olympics, high temperatures this week are expected to climb into the mid-50s. When it got into the mid-50s here on Saturday, I shifted into shorts and T-shirt mode.
Sochi is a Black Sea Resort town that was a holiday hideaway of Joseph Stalin and today is a favorite of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, who views these Games as a chance to showcase Russian culture and can-do spirit to the world. They are, if you're looking for an official host-nation narrative, Russia's comeback. The games were awarded to Russia via the same kind of back-room nonsense with which such major events are usually awarded. But the result this time has tragic potential.
The major concern is violence. Terrorism lurks just across and along the Caucasus Mountains from neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan, the home of heavy Islamic unrest. Last December 29 and 30, twin bombings in Volgograd killed 34. In January, authorities warned that a "black widow," female suicide bomber, may have penetrated the "ring of steel" security perimeter around Sochi. Islamic terrorists from these regions haven't just threatened to disrupt the Games, they have promised to do it.
In an effort to avoid international embarrassment, Russia has encircled the Olympic perimeter with military might, armed checkpoints, drones, roadblocks. They promise the safest Olympics in history. That's not how it feels. In Chechnya in 2004, terrorists rigged a new stadium in its provincial capital with explosives during its construction, killing the regional president and others. These are the same people hoping to strike now.
The U.S. fears a threat. As the largest national delegation planning to be in attendance, the U.S. has sent two warships into the Black Sea and expects to put C-17 transport and medical aircraft on standby at the U.S. airbase in Ramstein, Germany.
The U.S. ski and snowboard teams have contracted with a private crisis-response company to have five aircraft on standby. British Special Forces have been dispatched.
Americans at the Games have been warned not to wear red, white and blue outside of secure areas.
And this, sports fans, is where the world has chosen to contest its winter classic.
The safety issues, of course, are only a starting place. Russian observers are setting the cost of the Sochi Games at a staggering $55 billion — compared to $7 billion for the Vancouver Games.
At least one Olympic Record already is sure to fall — these will be the most expensive Games in history, equaling the cost of all the previous Winter Olympics since 1924. Tales of embezzlement, bribes and the usual state corruption of Russian projects have sent costs soaring out of control, while increasingly stories are beginning to dribble out over friends of Putin profiting from the excess.
You wonder how NBC, which has invested millions in rights fees and on equipment and reporters to cover these games, will treat Sochi itself as a story. Its record of corruption, of human rights abuses, environmental shortcuts and detaining journalists. (Already these reports from journalists arrived in Sochi. The Associated Press reports that three of the nine media hotels are not ready for service. Also, Yahoo! Sports reporter Charles Robinson said this morning he stumbled across authorities in Sochi poisoning stray dogs. The New York Times now is reporting on an effort to save what strays are left.)
And did I mention the weather? The ski venues figure to have adequate snowfall, and if they don't, manmade snow is available, along with snow from last winter stored in warehouses. I'm not kidding. Early reports, however, say that the temperatures in the mountains have been low enough to make for plenty of snow for the ski and snowboard events.
It's not that I won't enjoy the Olympics. I'm sure everyone will. NBC will crank up whatever enthusiasm it can muster among the public and put the best face on these Games that it can. But is that best face always the best thing, or even accurate?
I'm more worried about the process that landed the winter games in a place that winter barely touches, all for the purpose of telling the story of the rebirth of a country that hasn't been reborn.
I understand the Olympics have been used throughout history for host nations to portray a proud image to the world. That doesn't make it right. And it doesn't make the image accurate — unless the image that emerges is one like Jesse Owens dominating Hitler's 1936 Berlin Games.
I'm not saying the U.S. should've boycotted these Games. I only hope we don't wind up wishing we had. To say that these Games are more fraught with terrorist threat than any since Munich is not at all out of line with reality.
It's time to revisit the entire process, the way in which Games are awarded, the actions of nations that win the right to host.
It's time, no doubt, to reevaluate ourselves. Are we no more intelligent than this? Or is corruption now the primary Olympic sport?
Before these Games begin, put me on record as questioning the wisdom of lighting the Olympic torch in the middle of a powder keg.