There was violence nearby, in Ukraine, where the crisis in Kiev left more than 70 dead. And it was Vladimir Putin who fanned the bloody street conflict, demanding that Ukraine decide whether to bond with the European Union or maintain its alliance with the Kremlin, a battle the Russian president appeared to lose over the weekend.
But Sochi? Putin won in Sochi. There he was Sunday night in the gleaming Fisht Olympic Stadium — used just twice as part of his $51-billion mega-splurge — applauding and smiling broadly as the Winter Games ended without terrorism or tumult or really any sort of messy disruption, unless we’re counting members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, being horsewhipped by Cossacks during a protest. You don’t have to like Putin, his politics, his human rights stance or his contempt for gays. Yet you must respect, if grudgingly, the way he showcased a new Russia by the Black Sea, melding beautiful venues with blue skies and permanently shedding images of the dark, communist Soviet Union.
His security plan, the “Ring of Steel,” worked without a glitch. His logistical plan was smoother than most previous Olympiads, easily accommodating 2,856 athletes. Early reports of undrinkable water and shoddily constructed hotel rooms gave way to what is supposed to be the purpose of the Games: competition. And Russia succeeded in that category, too, winning the medals race with 13 gold and 33 overall.
“An extraordinary success,” said Thomas Bach, president of an International Olympic Committee that became bedfellows with Putin and placed the Games in obscure, formerly dreary Sochi. “We leave as friends of the Russian people. It’s amazing what has happened here.”
“This is the new face of Russia — our Russia,” said the Sochi organizing chief, Dmitry Chernyshenko.
Not that you would trust Putin if you were Barack Obama, as the two leaders made clear in sparring as the Games started. It was comically predictable that a scoring controversy — involving a Russian judge — would mar women’s figure skating. Was it merely coincidence that Alla Shekhovtseva, wife of Russian Skating Federation president and executive director Valentin Plssev, was on the nine-judge panel that awarded a surprising gold medal to Russia’s Adellna Sotnikova over the reigning Olympic gold medalist, South Korea’s Yuna Kim? And that one of the nine scores was disproportionately over the top for Sotnikova? And that Shekhovtseva gave Sotnikova a long, warm hug in the hallway afterward? The South Korean Olympic Committee filed an official protest, but there is a better chance of finding a good filet mignon in Sochi than justice being served.
“From what I understand, the (South Korean) letter wouldn’t trigger any investigation,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.
Said the International Skating Union in a statement: “The ISU is confident in the high quality and integrity of the ISU judging system.”
Putin wins, again.
NBC won, too, once the audiences got used to Bob Costas’ pinkeye. If the American medals effort was disappointing in Sochi, the network averaged more than 22 million viewers — lower than Vancouver, higher than Turin — and will make a healthy profit from these Games. Like baseball, Olympics audiences are growing old fast — the median age, reports the AP, was 55.1 on NBC, meaning younger people weren’t watching the X Games events ruled in Russia by U.S. kids. So there could be trouble on the ratings horizon, especially if the NHL stops sending its stars to the Games in 2018.
Turns out Russia, never known for its hardy cheer, even had a sense of humor. Remember the snafu at the Opening Ceremony when one of five Olympic rings didn’t form? Once again, at the Closing Ceremony, dancers didn’t complete the fifth ring. But this was a stunt, and when the dancers finished the formation, everyone had a good laugh.
Most of all, Vlad Putin. He had the last laugh.