The Olympics aren’t supposed to kill people. They’re supposed to exalt them. But it’s too late to take the dangerous, despoiling Winter Games away from the thugocracy that is Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime, so the only option is to count on the man’s bulging biceps and hope it’s an adequate “ring of steel” that can keep people safe in Sochi. It’s a cold hard fact that these Olympics have become an agent of death. Sochi already is a catastrophe, and if it becomes a tragedy too, it will be because the International Olympic Committee has become the tool of “colossal authoritarian branding,” to borrow a phrase from Russia scholar Leon Aron.
The choice is an ugly one: Removing the Games at this late date – the spectacle begins Feb. 6 – would devastate Russians who have invested national self-worth in them, and the athletes who have trained for them. Therefore the only option is to watch Sochi become a contest for prestige between two warring parties: a corrupt strongman who wants to flex his political authority, and the murderous jihadists who have vowed to strike in Sochi.
Why should the Olympics lend its prestige to either? But that’s exactly what’s happening. Let’s be clear about something: The people most at risk in Sochi are ordinary Russians. They’re the ones being drained and even impoverished by these crooked $50 billion Games, and who are at greater risk of being killed because nationalist insurgents in the North Caucasus have promised to add blood to the tab. Scare stories about “black widows” infiltrating the village, and warships on alert, aren’t the half of it. Insurgents from Chechnya, Dagestan and Abkhazia have vowed to strike the Olympics, and they have the capacity to do it. In 2013 there were 375 deaths from attacks in the region. In 2012 Russian forces found a cache of ammunition just 24 miles from Sochi meant for attacks on the Games, including homemade bombs, land mines, mortars and grenade launchers. Then there are infuriated Syrian fighters seeking revenge for Putin’s support of Assad. To put it plainly, Putin and the IOC have chosen to host an Olympics on the edge of a war zone. “I must admit it certainly wouldn’t have been my choice,” said Russia expert Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, who is currently in Moscow. “And I can’t help wondering if you got Putin thoroughly drunk whether he’d admit it might be a mistake too.”
IOC officials have long collaborated with plunderers, and treated human rights abuses as acceptable if it meant good commerce, regardless of the harm: In Beijing, dissidents were arrested and tortured for refusing to support the Games. But the IOC’s amoral stupidity and avarice may have finally peaked in Sochi. Activists have been jailed; homeowners evicted without compensation; 25 construction workers have died at stadium sites; illegal dumps of toxic construction waste have ruined local drinking water and caused homes to sink; and Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister, alleges that up to $30 billion has been stolen in preparing for the Games. Now we can add $3 billion in security costs to the price of hosting this festival of malevolence and greed. It may well be that Putin can secure the area with 60,000 police and special troops, and a cyber-dome of electronic spying and drone patrols. But Sochi is undeniably an inviting target, and so are areas outside of the security zone that will be stripped of police. In Volgograd, a major rail hub en route to Sochi, bombers killed 34 people last month.
“First, they have to foot this ridiculous bill for the Games; second, in order to provide all those security personnel, they have to come from somewhere else; and third, it galvanizes the insurgency,” Galeotti said. “This is a chance to really take advantage of the international spotlight. Let’s face it: There are terrorist attacks every week in the North Caucasus. Now they can do something on a platform.” Despite Galeotti’s analysis of the region, he said interior Sochi should be safe given the enormous resources being poured into it, and he cautioned against postponing or moving the Games, because it would appear to concede to terrorism, not to mention how it would insult blameless Russians. “What the terrorists are trying to do is get everyone to talk about security and not sport, and they are succeeding,” he said. “They are keeping up pressure, with attacks on other cities, releasing threats on videos, all these things allow them to control the narrative.” Taking the Games somewhere else wouldn’t alter the situation in North Caucasus, or prevent attacks in, say, movie theaters. “We cannot create absolute security for ourselves by avoiding every situation,” he said. “We just have to be resilient in how we deal with outcomes.” Point taken. But it’s not giving in to terrorism to say that it was an act of pure folly to award the Winter Games to Sochi back in 2007, given what specialists who studied the region understood. Or to call out the IOC officials who didn’t do their due diligence, and ignored all of the warning signs. As early as 2008, when a series of bombs detonated in Sochi, it was obvious that Putin was gambling dangerously with Olympic security for his own profit and purposes.
“The interesting thing is that Putin has made these Olympics so important to himself, and how they fit into his sporty image,” Galeotti said. “He has given them his weight. And if the insurgents don’t keep up the pressure, with threats to overshadow his achievements, then they will seem to have failed. Either side has the potential to be severely damaged by the outcome.” So the staging of the Sochi Games has become a contest of wills between Putin and the insurgents, with innocents squarely in the crossfire. The IOC is wholly responsible for this: It should have denied Putin the internal prestige he craves, while depriving the insurgents of a major target, by removing the Games when it was still politically and logistically possible. Now they will have to hope Putin can avert a disaster and make the Games safe, “insofar as you can be safe holding an Olympics inside a country fighting a serious insurgency,” Galeotti said. The Olympics are supposed to be about “human dignity,” in the words of the Olympic charter. But in these Games, the humans are shields.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.