SOCHI, Russia – The grim and the gorgeous coexist side by side at the Sochi Olympics. Anyone who thinks that what’s happening here is comparable to the excesses of other sports events in other places simply hasn’t seen or felt these Winter Games firsthand. The $51 billion colossus is an act of destructive grandiosity that threatens to make us all queasily complicit in crime, yet simultaneously awed and intimidated.
The most expensive Olympics in history is partly a Potemkin village, an elaborate facade built to impress foreign passersby and to enhance the image of a small, odd, chill-faced man who likes to pose menacingly shirtless in order to seem much taller than he actually is. It’s also a heist: Somewhere along the line, according to Vladimir Putin’s critics, as much $30 billion disappeared, and it didn’t go into the hotels, where the carpets look like scraps from an old office, unless it went into the surveillance that gives new meaning to the phrase bedbugs. Mainly it seems to have gone into creating scale, breathtaking but needlessly immense structures with columns that loom hundreds of feet high, dwarfing individuals into specks. And that’s exactly the point, isn’t it, to make the ordinary citizen quail with helplessness at the power of the “new” Russian state.
It’s the most troubling, complicated Olympics of our time, full of suppression, apprehension, active borderland insurgencies, gay scapegoating, Internet hacking. And farce, which peaked before the Opening Ceremonies when IOC president and arch-enabler Thomas Bach said there were no problems here, only “a couple of hiccups.”
But it’s most complicated for Russians, of course. Sochi, despite the naked mud and gravel, is a heart-seizing place and part of its appeal is that historically it’s a resort for average Russians, yet also the site of dachas for dictators. You find yourself yearning hard for Russian national renewal even as you root against Putin and the small group of 110 billionaire accomplices who have hijacked its wealth. Fact: In a country vast with promise, the average salary in Russia is $900 per month – and their standard of living has actually risen. What you see in Sochi is hardly representative of how they live.
For a glimpse of that, you had to go elsewhere: Start in Moscow and take the train south, a 27-hour journey.
“Open your heart, and your eyes, and ears,” suggested Joy Womack, 19, a Texan who since age 14 has been a Muscovite ballerina, and this year became the first American to ever dance with the Bolshoi Ballet, before she left it over an internal bribery and corruption scandal. To another young Russian, Konstantin Yablotskiy, a gay competitive figure skater who is conducting a courageous public campaign against Russia’s anti-homosexual law, the Sochi Games are taking place in a bubble so closed and devoid of reality they are virtually “in a prison.”
The view from the train – a new high-speed double-decker that should shame Amtrak – shows a different, un-insulated Russia.
Grey cinder-block apartments alternate with dilapidated cottages, corrugated tin roofs and outhouses. Images flash by. Thickets of white birch trees and broad frozen rivers, black branches like lead pencil sketches. A World War II tank, surrounded by a small fence in the middle of nowhere. A young couple walking on a path atop a knoll, she in furs, standing and watching the train. Rail crossings littered by husks of old trains with cracked windows, and huge pallets of cinder blocks and timber. Clusters of workmen warming themselves around fires of fat logs. Villages in snowy monochrome save for glints of magnificently colorful churches, robins-egg blue cathedrals topped by gold onion domes. Dark spikes of pines and parchment-tinted grasses jutting through hard-crusted snow, white fog that makes the sky indistinguishable from the ground, so there is no visible horizon.
To people who live in this Russia, foreign sportswriters who complain about missing door handles and cold water showers must sound impossibly naive and spoiled. What did we expect, in a country of such harsh climate and history?
Poorly-built new hotels are unimaginably soft compared to a place like Ashtyr, a blighted village along the new Olympic-commissioned highway to the Caucasus that, according to Human Rights Watch, has been plundered for its limestone by Olympic builders, leaving it with no drinkable water and some of its homes in collapse.
By the end of the train ride, the visitor understands a little better the great somber notes of Russian culture celebrated in the Opening Ceremonies, Stravinsky’s deep shaded sharps and minors, Rachmaninoff’s powerful piano showers, Pushkin’s poetry in which cold bronze horses come alive and blue ice steams. (And there was something appropriate about how, when five snowflakes of lights were supposed to turn into the Olympic rings, one of them malfunctioned.)
As the high-speed train draws closer to Sochi, the sweet center of this rotten event, the contrasts grow greater, broken concrete next to soaring opulence. The Black Sea coast is stunning, in its stony, ruined way, the Caucasus foothills plunging right down into the water like rock slides, into a sea of blue-green silk. Cheap resorts with swim pavilions jut next to new glass and vaulting steel arches that mimic the white-peaked massifs off in the distance. The hills are studded with cypress, palms and eucalyptus – and the occasional camouflaged security commando.
In Putin’s Potemkin Sochi Olympics, he announces a “ring of steel” security, yet liquids pass through X-rays unnoticed. Massive architecture and the perfectly orchestrated vivid light shows of the Opening Ceremonies are accompanied by flimsy building and inefficiency, while the Olympic staff appears under orders to pay excessive attention to ludicrously small exterior details. Street sweepers broom the grass for wrappers, and bathroom attendants fill out clipboards meticulously, though the lavatories won’t flush paper. Tree-canopied walks vie with gravel pits.
Putin’s Olympics is preposterously outsized, but by the end of the Opening Ceremonies, it was hard to call it artificial. These Games at once over-reach, and super-deliver: The torch relay traveled to the north pole and into outer space, a journey so epic that it obscured the fact that it frequently guttered out. It extinguished no fewer than 44 times, and at one point an aide had to relight it with a cigarette lighter. Yet when it finally flamed at the Olympic Park, the spectacle was frighteningly large. And that effect is precisely what he is after.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.