Putin’s Winter Games succeed ... with caveats

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 21, 2014 

— Will the 2014 Winter Olympics be remembered for athletes breaking records in their events or breaking through faulty bathroom doors to get to their events?

The Sochi games wrap up this weekend and appear to receive mixed reviews among athletes, spectators and analysts from the readiness of the facilities to the product on the field of competition.

Overall, those involved or observing the games believe that Russia — and President Vladimir Putin — have pulled off a successful Winter Games, especially given the potential for terrorism in this politically volatile region.

But the praise comes with caveats: the games’ $50 billion price tag, complaints of corruption, and the spate of bad publicity surrounding unfinished lodging accommodations, the killing of stray dogs, and the heavy-handed treatment of human and environmental rights activists by Russian authorities.

“Yes, Putin can say he pulled off a successful games,” said Janice Forsyth, director of the University of Western Ontario’s International Centre for Olympic Studies. “Oddly, because of the predictable way in which the games rolled out, with their construction woes, the corruption, the civic and human rights abuse, because all of this was known ahead of time, and because no athlete died at the games, the games can be remembered as being successful.”

Forsyth predicts that the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach, will give the Sochi games their stamp of approval. It’s unlikely, however, he’ll go as far as former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who would close each Olympiad by declaring them “the best games ever.”

“The IOC will say there were some lessons learned but the games were generally very well run, and congratulate Putin for pulling off a feat of monstrous proportions,” she said. “The benchmarks for success are usually technical — the events were run on time, the venues constructed and operationalized, athletes competed as they should have with few injuries, the media was able to do their job, no major security issues.”

With only the weekend left for the Winter Olympics, analysts who expressed concern prior to the games about the country’s ability to contain or respond to potential terrorist threats give Russia high marks.

Most Americans believed that Sochi was rife for a terrorist attack given its proximity to Chechnya, site of two bitter civil wars and home to anti-Putin Muslim rebels.

A CNN poll earlier this month found that 57 percent of Americans believed that Sochi would be attacked.

Putin enveloped Sochi and surrounding areas in a so-called “ring of steel,” deploying more than 40,000 law enforcement agents, tightening security measures at transportation terminals, and increasing electronic and social media surveillance on Olympic attendees.

“I think it came off pretty well,” Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said of the games and the security effort. “The Russians can be rightly, reasonably proud for pulling it off.”

Jeff Wells, a minister from St. Louis who attending his eighth Olympics, said he felt secure in Sochi.

“My family was worried, all the terrorism and threats and all that, but I’m a Christian, I believe God’s in control, so I’m not worried,” he said. “I feel very safe. Security has been very adequate without being burdensome. I like the layout of the park, and you can’t beat this weather. The Russians have been very friendly. They see out flag and they want pictures with us. This is what the Olympics is all about.”

Still, IOC officials may have a bone or two to pick privately with Russian Olympic organizers about the readiness of some facilities, particularly lodging. IOC officials earlier this week acknowledged that on the eve of Sunday’s closing ceremony that some hotels still aren’t completed. Jean-Claude Killy, the IOC’s chief supervisor for the Sochi games, said the committee first learned of potential housing problems in September.

“We realized it too late. All the alarms went off in September,” Killy told the Olympic News Service. “I made a special trip. I said, ‘What do we need to do?’ There is no way to organize a games if you cannot accommodate people.”

And some lodging that opened on time were substandard. Stories abound of shoddy workmanship, poor plumbing, and uncooperative doors. The quality of construction was crystalized by U.S. bobsledder Johnny Quinn of Denton, Texas, who had to physically crash through a locked/jammed bathroom door to get out.

IOC officials this week attributed some of the troubles to facilities that they say weren’t scheduled to open for the Winter Games, but had owners who changed their minds and unsuccessfully tried to accelerate construction.

“So, yes, there were some issues with the hotels, but we have to put it in the score of things then, secondly, some of the hotels are not finished today because they were not foreseen to be in the program to be finished here,” Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s technical director said Thursday

Some conditions at events weren’t ideal, either. Coastal Sochi’s subtropical climate — with temperatures in the upper 50s at Black Sea level — wafted its way up to mountain venues over several days and made some events and practices a challenge on slushy or melting courses.

Several snowboard halfpipe athletes complained about the lip of their course and soft snow.

“It’s kind of scary,” American snowboarder Taylor Gold said two weeks ago.

Russian Olympic officials resorted to using snow that was warehoused from last winter on the courses and had to obtain an emergency 24-ton shipment of salt in order to soften then refreeze some of the courses to make for better skiing.

While some athletes, including snowboarder Shaun White, had their gripes, others said the skiing conditions and facilities were just fine.

Matt Whitcomb, coach of the U.S. women’s cross country team said the cross country facility was near picture-perfect.

“It’s demanding, but it skis well,” he said. “… If we can come back here and race in Sochi again, I’ll be ecstatic. It would be a shame not to.”


(Nathaniel Herz of the Anchorage Daily News and fasterskier.com contributed to this report.)

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