Today and over the next 2½ weeks, the eyes of the world will be focused on the once sleepy, barely noticed Black Sea resort town of Sochi, Russia, as nearly 3,000 athletes from 88 countries gather to compete in the 22nd Winter Olympics. Incredibly, 3 billion people are expected to watch the games on television, an audience 27 times larger than last Sunday’s record-setting Super Bowl. The Olympic Games are the greatest spectacle in the world.
The Sochi Games, for good or ill, will go down in history as Vladimir Putin’s Olympics. In 2007, as the International Olympic Committee met in Guatemala City to select the location for the 2014 Winter Games, Putin personally lobbied for Sochi, arguing that his Russian Federation had yet to host an Olympics (it was the U.S.S.R. that hosted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games), promising committee members that Russia would invest heavily in facilities and infrastructure, putting his own reputation and prestige on the line. Putin was elated when Sochi was awarded the games in a close election, edging out Pyeongchang, South Korea, by a four-vote margin.
Now, nearly seven years later, after blowing a record-shattering, wasteful $50 billion on facilities and infrastructure, after massive no-bid contracts and seemingly unlimited financial resources were awarded only to oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin, after catastrophic, likely criminal, mismanagement of construction contracts resulting in 500 percent cost overruns, after 25 construction workers were killed and dozens others maimed on the job, after thousands of political activists and protesters have been imprisoned or muzzled by security forces, after a frantic and unsuccessful hunt for domestic terrorists within the “iron” security ring surrounding Sochi, and after thousands of stray dogs were exterminated to keep them from wandering into the Olympic stadium, Vladimir Putin will glide onto the stage and hold up Russia as the pinnacle of achievement, of progress, of civilization.
Over the last few years, while we in America have struggled through the Great Recession, endured bitter, destructive partisan battles and grappled with unprecedented demographic and cultural changes, Putin has skillfully extended Russia’s influence in the world. He brokered the Syrian chemical weapons deal, unflinchingly supported Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear capabilities, and publicly questioned America’s moral and financial fitness to hold the world’s reserve currency. He has outmaneuvered our entire State Department on every front. There is no question that Putin is a skilled politician.
But Russia will never be truly stable, truly trustworthy and truly able to lead on the world stage until it cleanses the inner vessel — until it rids itself of legalized political oppression, until it eradicates institutionalized, organized corruption, and until it recognizes and protects the natural rights to life, liberty and property.
While I sincerely hope that the Sochi Olympic Games come off well, and that the people of Russia will have something to cheer for and be proud of, I also hope that Mr. Putin, the people of Russia and the rest of the world will be wise enough to see that shiny new stadiums, glittering hotels and highways and beautiful pageantry do not make a country great. Great countries are built upon empowered, confident, creative people who believe and know that their government is their ally rather than their adversary, their protector rather than their oppressor, their safe haven in a dangerous world.
Perhaps the Sochi Olympics, and the close scrutiny it will generate, will prompt Putin to turn his eyes inwardly and motivate him to take the necessary steps to institutionalize the principles and practices of democracy. Only then can Russia become truly great.