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Cover Story

Sochi Olympics: Putin's moment at world podium

Russia's leader, eager to burnish his legacy and boost the country's global standing, has risked a lot of prestige in staging the most expensive Olympics in history.

By Correspondent / February 6, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in a friendly ice hockey game near Sochi on Jan. 4. 'Putin's Games' is the subject of the cover story in the Feb. 3, 2014 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Alexei Nikolskiy, Ria Novosti, Kremlin/REUTERS

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Moscow

Vladimir Putin was at the height of his powers, and his popularity, when he boarded his presidential plane to travel to Guatemala City on a July day almost seven years ago. He was bringing a carefully prepared pitch to put to a skeptical International Olympic Committee. It bespoke a key personal dream of his and a goal he hoped would secure his legacy and elevate Russia once again to a major world power.

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Speaking in English, a language he'd been secretly studying, he pledged to transform the sleepy, Soviet-era Black Sea spa town of Sochi into a world-class Olympic venue in time for the winter Games of 2014. He pledged the staggering sum of $12 billion in Kremlin cash to make that happen – a bid that dwarfed the competing cities of Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria. When Sochi won, Mr. Putin was ebullient.

"This is ... not just a recognition of Russia's sporting achievements but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country," he said. "It is a recognition of our growing capability, first of all economically and socially."

Visitors to Sochi this month will discover that Putin's promises have been spectacularly fulfilled. The city now boasts a gleaming new airport, dozens of ultramodern stadiums and sports facilities, and a state-of-the-art media center. It has free high-speed Wi-Fi everywhere on the Olympic grounds, a new road and rapid-transit rail line hewn from the mountainside to link the subtropical coast with the alpine winter sports cluster, and rows of new luxury hotels.

It's an impressive achievement. Even though the cost has since ballooned to an astonishing $55 billion, almost one-third of which appears to have been due to Russia's pervasive corruption, public opinion polls show that Russians remain overwhelmingly proud that their country is set to host the world's most prestigious athletic event.

No one will be encouraged to stray from the Olympic zone, but visitors who do will soon bump up against evidence that it's all something akin to a latter-day Potemkin village. The glowing subtext of Putin's appeal was that visitors to Sochi would be welcomed by a rapidly modernizing and democratizing Russia that is vaulting into the global mainstream.

Indeed, back in 2007, that almost seemed like a credible narrative. Then, Russia had been one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Prices for the country's main export, petroleum, were at record highs. A burgeoning middle class was redrawing the social map while showing few signs of political discontent. A long-running separatist rebellion in the southern republic of Chechnya appeared defeated and the turbulent North Caucasus region – uncomfortably close to Sochi – largely pacified.

Today, Russia's economy is struggling. It is beset by near-stagnant growth, rising inflation, and growing working-class unease over imminent housing, education, and pension reforms. Race riots in Moscow and other centers have shattered the impression of ethnic harmony and exposed yawning social fault lines. The formerly quiescent middle class erupted en masse two years ago to air an array of pent-up grievances, particularly allegations of electoral fraud.

Follow Mark Sappenfield @sappenfieldm live in Sochi!

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