The costly distraction that is Vladimir Putin's Sochi Olympics

At $50 billion, Sochi will be the most expensive Winter Olympics by a longshot. Will they be a monument to "the new Russia" as its game-loving president would have it? Or a showcase for a growing set of domestic problems like widespread corruption?

Within Russia, the stench of corruption is almost certainly the biggest worry for the Kremlin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends an Orthodox Christmas service at the Holy Face of Christ the Saviour Church in Sochi on Jan. 7. Many Russians believe he has formed a new alliance between Church and state. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

The short man wearing number 11 skates carefully and slowly to a spot directly in front of the opposing goalie. No defenceman approaches him. He is the czar on skates.

A winger zips down the right, fires a shot and scores. Number 11 skates away, barely acknowledging his team's goal. In the end his side wins 12-3. It was foreordained.

The short man wearing number 11 is Vladimir Putin at play in Sochi. The Olympic Games approach and they are clearly his Games.

"I chose this place personally," he says in a new documentary by Russian state television, released on the weekend. In lacing on his skates, he is merely testing his sites.

In his almost 15 years in power, Russia's president has donned many guises — judo master, hockey player, hunter, fisherman, underwater archeologist, a flying chaperone for storks.

Sport — along with his frequently photographed muscled body — is meant to symbolize his strong leadership. Sport, he said in a book of interviews at the beginning of his domination of Russia, saved him as a teenager.

"I was scum," he said. "Sport got me off the street. Without it, I don't know what I would have become."

Now, the man saved by sport offers a great sporting spectacle to his nation, albeit a spectacularly costly one that may also be serving as a great distraction from the growing troubles in his sprawling empire.

Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he plays a friendly hockey match at The Bolshoy Ice Dome in the southern resort town of Sochi last month. (Associated Press)

The good czar's $50 billion gift to the world — by far the most expensive Winter Olympics in history (Vancouver's cost about $7 billion all in) — has raised a number of eyebrows.

An International Olympic Committee official, Gian Franco Kasper, has said that as much as one-third of the $50 billion has been siphoned off by corruption.

Tut, tut, said Putin. "I do not see serious corruption examples for the moment, but there is a problem with overestimation of construction volumes."

In other words, some bids might have been lowballed to win contracts, but that isn't corruption, just hard-edged competition.

Within Russia, however, the stench of Olympic corruption, is almost certainly a bigger worry for Putin than, say, the Western backlash over the country's anti-homosexual legislation.

Russians know about corruption at every level, and make their loathing plain. If the great party is revealed as another great rip-off, the reaction might be toxic.

Games in the snow

And so the Games must go on and be a success. And success, in Russia, means medals.

Four years ago in Vancouver there weren't many Russian medals. The tumbrils filled with the heads of Russia's Olympic bosses.
Anti-government protesters rally in Moscow on the weekend, and seem determined to make their complaints about official corruption known throughout the Olympic period. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

Putin needs success this time because things aren't going so well on other home fronts.

Since the great crash of 2008, the Russian economy has stuttered. Its roads and health services are pot-holed in equal measure. Suicide bombers attack not all that far from Sochi, killing dozens and terrifying thousands.

Yet Putin stands above it all, perhaps less loved than a dozen years ago by a populace fed on a television diet of his heroic actions, but certainly obeyed, and feared.

Perhaps a clue lies in the name. An earlier Vladimir, Lenin, buried the Romanov dynasty and gave rise to the academy of oppression, the Cheka, later the KGB where Putin once worked.

But an even earlier Vladimir may be the more fitting model for the modern czar.

Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev, came to power just over 1,000 years ago when his realm was also in turmoil.  

He reconquered it and expanded it to the Baltic Sea. Then he introduced Orthodox Christianity to Kievan Rus, as it was known, after sending emissaries from his pagan land to investigate the great monotheistic religions. (Legend has it that he rejected Islam because of the Russian fondness for alcohol. "We cannot exist without that pleasure," he supposedly said.)

Having made his choice, Vladimir dumped his 800 concubines and built churches where there had been pagan shrines.

Now, the latter-day Vladimir has cemented his own pact with the Orthodox Church in Russia, directing state money to rebuild churches, and trumpeting a nationalist, conservative way for Russia.

The church has responded by applauding his regime and, among others, the laws on homosexuality that have so shocked the West.

The modern Vladimir has also worked mightily to restore the shattered former Soviet empire, establishing what he hoped would be a quasi-protectorate in Ukraine at the end of 2013 to keep it from linking with the European Union.

That deal caused an explosion of anger and demonstrations that have rocked the regime of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych these last months.

Riot police stand in a cordon facing a barricade of anti-government protesters in Kiev on Monday, a confrontation that has only spread as the Olympics in nearby Sochi get closer. (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Yanukovych responded with laws modeled on Putin's — banning demonstrations and the channelling of foreign money to Ukrainian organizations with the threat of heavy penalties for those who don't obey.

But he doesn't inspire the same respect, let alone the same fear as Putin. Nor does he have the weight of Russia's long-practiced "competent organs" — Moscow's Interior Ministry troops and secret police — that the Russian president calls on to enforce his will.

The demonstrations and violence have spread from Kiev to Ukrainian provincial cities — almost literally into Sochi's backyard.

At the moment, Putin's quasi-protectorate looks distinctly shaky. But there is always the consolation and distraction of games in the snow.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.