Almost a year ago, Glen Gardner, a speed-skating fan who owns an executive-search firm in Columbus, dreamed of working as a volunteer at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
He went through screening and online training process and learned he had made the cut not long before the start of the Games. Then, the fear factor hit.
A Chechen separatist group threatened to attack the Games with “maximum force,” and the U.S. State Department issued travel warnings to Americans en route to Russia. Two Olympics had been hit with terror attacks – Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996 – but never before had brand-name terrorists issued a clear threat to turn the Games into a blood bath before the events started.
At that point, Gardner seriously considered bailing out. “A lot of Americans did,” he said. “That’s why there’s so few of us here.”
Gardner and some 25,000 other volunteers have been at Sochi for a week. He feels safe. The sun is shining and he loves the sports and his friendly colleagues (if not the volunteering itself).
After seven days of competition, the early assessment is the Games are a logistical, sporting and audience success, even if the unusually warm weather threatens to turn the alpine courses into porridge.
Canada’s cross-country ski coach, Justin Wadsworth, who has attended a half-dozen Games as competitor or coach, was ready by last Wednesday to declare Sochi an all-round winner. “Everyone was coming into this with a lot of fear and nothing has really materialized,” he said. “It’s been well-organized. … I think it’s [too] easy to want to come down on a country like Russia.”
Ditto, says Paul Piccininni, a Toronto dentist who is a member of the Olympic medical commission at Sochi and who has worked at every Games since Atlanta. He says the Sochi Games have been pretty much glitch-free on the medical-services front and complaints about psychotic security measures have been overblown.
“In Atlanta, I was close to where the bomb went off and in Athens [in 2004], we were sitting near a battery of missiles,” he said. “The security here is no more troublesome than it was in Vancouver [in 2010].”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. To read the press, Sochi was destined to land in the grey zone between comedy festival and outright disaster, given the Russians’ Olympics inexperience (Sochi is their first Winter Games), their well-deserved reputation for epic corruption and the endless tales of laughter-inducing incompetence. (Indeed, the most memorable image of the Games immediately before the flame was lit was the one of the side-by-side toilets.)
Given the near hysteria in the Western press in general – the American press in particular – the dwindling, though still large, number of viewers around the world who care about the Winter Games can be forgiven for thinking Sochi was on a hell ride to disaster.
It never was, of course; when you have the equivalent of $50-billion (U.S.) to spend – Sochi is the most expensive Games in history by a long shot – you can buy your way out of a lot of problems.
Another 10,000 soldiers to guard to the Olympic sites? Come on down, boys! Worried about traffic congestion? Here’s $9-billion to build a 50-kilometre highway/railway link from the Black Sea to the alpine villages. The opening ceremony? How about your own purpose-built stadium, Mr. Artistic Director?
To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin set himself up – and Sochi by extension – as a political target well before the Games.
He sided with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to the anger of many Western countries who argued al-Assad’s autocratic rule was intensifying an already savage civil war. Putin granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency employee whose security leaks turned into a gusher.
Incredibly, Putin allowed the passage of an anti-gay law shortly before the Games, ensuring Sochi would become the focus of human-rights protests. Then, there was Ukraine and Putin’s attempt to bring the country back into the Russian fold, a geopolitical manoeuvre that has taken Ukraine to the edge of civil war.
The Olympics are always political, of course. They have been the scene of boycotts, protests and excessive jingoism. They are theatres where the bravado of the host country’s leader is put on full display. Putin puffed himself up like a rooster – Sochi was very much his show.
Fears about security risks, perhaps hyped up by the Americans, only added to the geopolitical drama surrounding the Games. If they were to fail for whatever reason – terrorism, incompetence, corruption – the West would be happy to see Putin suffer the embarrassment.
So far, the script has not gone according to plan.
The Sochi Games are working rather well. The geopolitical story is fading fast, along with the hunt for more twin toilets. Sport and the athletic drama that goes with it is taking over – higher, faster, stronger.
Putin is said to be happy, gloating even. Why not?