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What to watch at the Sochi Olympics

The Sochi Winter Olympics will be about more than skiing, skating, and sledding. Every Olympics can promote peace by putting a spotlight on the host country. Russia has already found the Games can stir change for the better, despite what Putin expects.

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    President Vladimir Putin speaks while visiting the Coastal Cluster Olympic Village ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics Feb. 5 in Sochi, Russia.
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An original purpose of the modern Olympics has been to promote peace – not only between nations but often inside a host country. With the opening of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi this weekend, the focus will be mainly on skating, skiing, and sledding. But what will the Games do for peace, especially within Russia?

The country has yet to end terrorist threats from the nearby Caucasus region. Russian democracy is broken. Many dissidents remain in jail. With the world’s eyes on Russia for two weeks of elite winter sports, these Olympics might well be a catalyst for change.

To some degree, they already are.

Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), President Vladimir Putin had to back down from a ban on protests during the two weeks of the Olympics. He conveniently released a few prominent people from prison, such as former opponent and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, and Greenpeace protesters. And he was on the defensive after a foreign backlash against a new Russian law against gays.

All of this was not in his original plan.

Mr. Putin had sought to use the Olympics to “buck up” his people and unite them behind his strong rule, especially if Russian athletes collect more than a few gold medals. The Games were meant to project an image of Russia as a great power and spur a slowing economy. He also wanted to develop the area around the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

Instead, Russians are upset at the estimated $51 billion spent to prepare for the Games – an outsized amount in the history of the Olympics. Worries over a possible terrorist attack during the Games – countered by the presence of 37,000 security forces – have served as a reminder of Russia’s weaknesses within its own border. And local residents are upset at the ecological damage in their area.

One possible effect of the Games: Russian political activists have found renewed energy in reports of corruption and overruns in spending on Sochi. In both India and Brazil since 2011, massive protests have erupted in response to suspect spending on international megasports events. The demonstrations have pushed clean politics to the fore in those two nations.

Even more than corruption, Russians are watching to see if Putin has set the stage for a successful Olympics. If he hasn’t, people ask, how can he manage the economy. For more than a century, the IOC has chosen host nations based in part on political reasons. The 1936 Berlin Games ended up puncturing Hitler’s claim to Aryan superiority with the performance of black running star Jesse Owens. The 1964 Olympics restored Japan’s role in the world. The 1980 Games further isolated the Soviet Union because of a Western boycott. The 1988 Games in Seoul, helped bring democracy to South Korea.

Since the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, in contrast, China’s rulers have only tightened their grip on power.

The Olympics, either by design or circumstance, put a global spotlight on a host country’s strengths and weaknesses. Such scrutiny can stir change, usually for the better. Humanity expects much in terms of universal values at these giant events. The Sochi contests could help reverse Putin’s descent into dictatorship and raise prospects for peace. If so, the Olympics themselves deserve a medal.

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