You will watch the Winter Olympics, particularly if you are older than 50, because your mind is brainwashed by tradition, winter boredom and Bob Costas’ latest Botoxian transformation. You will follow the Sochi Games in search of warm-and-fuzzy American triumphs, even if you don’t know the names and haven’t followed the sports for three years and 50 weeks. NBC will try very hard to keep you interested, too, having paid an astounding $775 million for two weeks of slaloms, triple toe loops and, with a nod to Shaun White, Frontside Double-Cork 1440s.
But if you’ve ever been tempted to ignore an Olympiad — no TV, no phone peeks, an all-out boycott for two weeks — this would be the one.
Having covered 14 of these intraplanetary conventions, I know when the anxiety quotient is warranted and when it’s the byproduct of grumpy, jet-lagged journalists needing something to fill space before the events. Somewhere in Russia, amid palm trees by the Black Sea, the anxiety and fear are palpable — and legitimate. Threats of terrorism never have been more real in recent Olympic times, not that there weren’t concerns at the first post-9/11 Games in Salt Lake City and at subsequent Summer Games in Athens, Beijing and London. Unlike those cities, which succeeded with only a smattering of problems, Sochi is vulnerable to a tragedy due to a volatile region, the utter disorganization of so-called organizers and the misplaced priorities of egomaniacal Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is so immersed in trying to impress the world — and adversaries such as Barack Obama — that he’s downplaying the suicide bombers who’ve already established their intent to sabotage the Games.
Did you notice in December when two such bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, just a few hundreds miles away, part of the grand scheme to form an Islamic state in the Caucasus region? The Chechen rebel leader, Doku Umarov, described the Sochi Games as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.” Putin has tried to calm fears by pointing to massive security lockdowns, police initiatives and intelligence agencies at the Games, yet he also underlined a monumental challenge when he said this week of recent high-profile bombings, “In the U.S., people died at a marathon. During the G-8, there were terrorist acts in the London subway.” It should be noted that the two brothers accused in the Boston Marathon bombings last spring were Chechen, from a town in the same region. Forty thousand troops? Sounds like a lot, but probably not enough for these Games.
Seems not long ago when I was writing in the wee hours after giving $60 to a gas-station attendant to let us use his side office in downtown Atlanta, where a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park killed a woman. Now, the security director of those Games is telling USA Today that he’s very concerned about Sochi. “This is the only Games in history where there’s been an announced credible threat well before the Games,” Bill Rathburn said. “Since that threat was made last July, there’s been at least three terrorist incidents that have demonstrated their capability of carrying out that threat. So I think it’s very, very real.”
There are reasons to be nervous, if not 24/7 scared. And it doesn’t ease tensions when arriving visitors see a host city not remotely ready for the Games. By now, you’ve heard the horror stories from journalists about poisoned brown water, side-by-side open toilets in public restrooms, hotels and malls still under construction and — deep breaths — stray dogs that reportedly will be killed by a firm hired by city hall. If Sochi doesn’t have hotel rooms prepared, how will it be prepared for the “black widow” terrorists already said to be in town?
American athletes and visitors are being told not to wear red, white and blue to avoid possible attacks. How sad that parents of U.S. athletes, who helped support their kids’ dreams for years, have to worry about celebrating an Olympic medal a little too loudly. And if you’re gay? Wear symbols and speak out at your own risk, with Russian’s anti-gay movement alive and not well and ready to banish all homosexuals to a Siberian iceberg. Obama isn’t going to Russia. Michelle Obama isn’t going, either, meaning Sochi will be the first Olympiad not attended by a U.S. president or first lady. It’s not just about gays. Edward Snowden, too.
What fun, huh? And all I can ask, having reported on the International Olympic Committee and its backroom politics, is why the IOC cut a deal with Vladimir the Devil and dared to put the Games in such a dangerous place? They are bedfelllows now, Putin and the IOC boys, and it was no surprise to see the committee’s chairman, Thomas Bach, defend Putin against Obama and American concerns about Russia’s anti-gay stance. “Sports should not be used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests,” said Bach, standing with Putin at a media session. “People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines.”
That’s the IOC for you, more active in protecting Putin than assuring us these Olympics are safe. Shame on anybody who had anything to do with Sochi being thrust upon us, like a plague, in February 2014.
I’m not a big prayer guy. I’m praying this month, every night.