Ready or not, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi have begun and, if reports from the scene are accurate, Russia is not nearly ready for its big debut on the world stage.
Journalists and travelers to the Games have been sending stories, photos and tweets about new hotels that are open for business only in the sense that they will take your money. Muddy construction sites surround the unfinished lodgings. Front desks are unmanned. Doorknobs are missing. Light bulbs are scarce. Water from faucets comes out brown and with warnings to avoid using it for drinking or washing. Toilets can’t flush away toilet paper. Furnishings are so spare and stark they make a Motel 6 look like the Ritz.
Poverty cannot be an excuse for this. Russia has set a record for spending on an Olympics. The Vancouver games four years ago cost Canada $7.4 billion. By the time it is all over, the Sochi Games are expected to cost nearly 10 times that amount. Of course, the Canadians mounted their games in a big city with a well-established, world-class ski resort nearby. The modest Black Sea town of Sochi had to be transformed into a venue for winter sports, something few people would have dreamed of doing, given the area’s temperate climate and swaying palm trees along the beach.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin dreamed it and then willed it into being. Probably no leader since Adolf Hitler has invested so much of his own prestige in an Olympics. Putin has overseen every detail, down to attending the rehearsals for the opening night extravaganza. These Games are meant to be proof that Putin has restored the largest country in the world to equal status with other great powers.
His biggest worry has been that the coming-out party would be disrupted by the Chechen terrorists who have been fighting for years to separate their region from Russia and establish an Islamic state. It has been a long, bloody, ruthless conflict waged just a few hundred miles from Sochi. Putin has brought in 40,000 troops to create a “ring of steel” around the games, pledging to keep everyone safe from suicide bombers who have made their own pledge to wreak havoc.
Clearly, much of the exorbitant expense of the Sochi Games can be attributed to the massive security measures. But a large share of the cost is the result of something that should be as troubling to Putin as terrorism: corruption. As is the case from New Jersey to Nairobi, public construction projects are greed magnets. Payoffs to politicians, bureaucrats and mobsters, plus overcharges and profit skimming, are all too common when big things are being built for big money. And, the weaker the political and legal system, the higher the price of graft.
The huge price of the Sochi Olympics is clear evidence that, just as the hotels really are not ready for guests, Russia is not ready to claim it is a modern state. Like a Mafia don, Putin may long for respectability, but the truth is, he merely sits atop a cabal of racketeers who want nothing more than to get rich at the expense of Mother Russia.