Did I hear correctly when Barack Obama accused Vladimir Putin of having a “shtick,” saying the Russian leader contrives a tough-guy image in public settings? And could I believe my eyes when Putin approved Irina Rodnina, the Soviet figure-skating champion, to help light the Olympic cauldron only months after she mocked Obama with a racist tweet that was photoshopped to feature a banana?
The Russian skater who just lit the Olympic flame tweeted this doctored, racist photo of the Obamas last September. pic.twitter.com/kQhIDqXwki
— Terry Moran (@TerryMoran) February 7, 2014
With all proper respect to the 3,000 athletes competing at the Winter Olympics, they are the sidebar. The showdown for gold in Sochi is Obama vs. Putin. I wish both would move the hell out of the way so we can enjoy the Games, but their egos are running away like sleds down a luge track. It is Putin, the autocrat, who is using the Olympics in attempts to recalibrate our perception of Russia in the 21st century. And it is Obama, disgusted by Russia’s anti-gay stance and its asylum for Edward Snowden, who snubbed Putin’s Games by refusing to send himself, the first lady or the vice president to the opening ceremony.
One could sense during the impressive extravaganza, which oozed of show-off grandiosity and had American athletes raving afterward, that Putin already feels he has stuck it to Obama by bringing the Games to the edge of the Black Sea. And one could sense during a much-discussed glitch — only four of five floating snowflakes were transformed into Olympic rings, which organizers unapologetically covered up on the Russian TV broadcast — that Obama was roaring with laughter back at the White House.
“This is certainly bad, but it does not humiliate us,” said Konstantin Ernst, executive creative director of the ceremony, saying he inserted rehearsal footage to protect the integrity of the Olympic movement’s five-ringed symbol.
Of course, none of this is funny. If these are the world’s two most powerful men — with Forbes ranking Putin first and Obama second in October, writing that “Putin has solidified his control over Russia while Obama’s lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president” — then no one wants to see the Olympics escalate into a platform for their ongoing grudge match. But if I have to project a winner when the Games end Feb. 23, it’s Obama.
Aside from opening-week horror stories about endangered stray dogs, poisonous brown water and unkempt construction zones, Putin has a massive and perhaps impossible responsibility to keep the Games safe amid legitimate terrorism concerns. As the ceremony was beginning in Fisht Olympic Stadium, a Ukrainian man, claiming to have a bomb, attempted to hijack a Turkey-bound jet and divert it to Sochi. The standoff ended when the pilot and crew successfully misled the 45-year-old man into thinking the plane was headed to the Olympic city when, in fact, it would land in Istanbul, where he was arrested and all 110 passengers were evacuated without injury.
An unsettling message was sent nonetheless: If this happened during the opening ceremony, what possibly might happen between now and the closing ceremony? “We were receiving through various channels information that there could be initiatives to sabotage the spirit of peace arising in Sochi,” Istanbul governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters.
There almost surely will be more such initiatives. For all the beauty of the Sochi seafront and the nearby mountain regions, and for all the spectacular venues that received preferential treatment within Putin’s ridiculous $51-billion budget, these Games ultimately will be judged on safety in a volatile region that shouldn’t be hosting an Olympiad. With a protection force numbering over 100,000, Putin says this will be “the safest Olympics in history.”
Obama, like any reasonable soul who grasps the danger potential, isn’t so sure. “They’ve got an enormous investment in making sure these Games are successful,” he told Bob Costas in an NBC interview.
Putin easily could have nixed the participation of Rodnina, the three-time pairs gold medalist who lit the cauldron with Soviet Red Army goaltending legend Vladislav Tretiak. Though she eventually removed the tweet, she wasn’t apologetic for it, writing in another tweet, “Freedom of speech is freedom.” Putin apparently had no problem with the tweet.
All of which prompted a surprising, not-so-veiled rebuke of Russia by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. In his first speech at an opening ceremony since assuming the role from Jacque Rogge, Bach urged the Sochi Games to showcase “human diversity and great unity.” Said Bach: “To the athletes, you have come here with your Olympic dream. You are welcome, no matter where you come from or your background. Yes, it’s possible even as competitors to live together and to live in harmony with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”
He’s talking to you, Mr. Putin.
Next weekend, Team USA plays Russia in hockey. Thirty-four years ago, the demise of the Soviet bloc was foreshadowed by what we know as the Miracle on Ice — American kids beating a pulled Tretiak and the famed Red Army team in Lake Placid. You will be hearing much about 1980 during the lead-up.
My guess is, Obama will be pre-gaming with a viewing of the movie “Miracle,” followed by a non-stop streaming tape of Al Michaels.