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Sochi Olympics

Sochi Games offered a window into the many paradoxes of the ‘new Russia’

SOCHI, Russia – In the end, it was the right thing for the Olympics to come to Sochi, for all the wrong reasons.

If the Winter Games had been staged somewhere else, then we never would have seen this still-rising emblem of the “new Russia” – so visually spectacular yet suggestive of a vast chasm between potential and reality. Here’s hoping that the promise of Sochi will be real.

If the Olympics hadn’t come to Sochi, we never would have seen this strange artificial transformation of a summer resort into a massively scaled unfinished city with its epic financial and human cost, or seen the Black Sea rippling like a green sheet with its beaches like beds of rocks, or the cathedrals warming in the morning sun, or met the inexhaustibly warm local Russians and talked with them in the unfreezing language of the local wines. Any visitor, no matter how rudely curious or critical, had to devoutly wish that the Olympic Park would become an enduring triumph for the people who actually built it – as opposed to the handful of government officials and crooks who ordered it built.

If the Winter Games hadn’t come to Sochi, we wouldn’t have seen or felt its paradox: a supposed Olympic truce with extraordinary underlying tensions over human rights abuses, punitive anti-gay laws, and a political firestorm in Ukraine. One captured perfectly by Billie Jean King, the former tennis champion and gay activist who headlined the U.S. delegation at the Closing Ceremonies.

“Sometimes it’s good to go to places where things aren’t good,” King said. “Sometimes you can help change by going to places where it’s difficult.”

The Sochi Games, for all of its issues, will be remembered as a powerful argument against boycotts. If the Olympics hadn’t come to Sochi, we wouldn’t have seen the Russians’ proud pandemonium over the revived mastery of their figure skaters pirouetting to gold medals on their home ice, and understood how starved they were for greatness again. Same with the four women biathletes from Ukraine, who won their country’s first gold medal in 20 years on a day when their country split open and burned.

If the Olympics hadn’t come to Sochi, there wouldn’t have been such a tough but needed dialogue over whether the International Olympic Committee needs to stop awarding the Games to countries that commit human rights violations. And we never would have seen hardliner anti-gay Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an extraordinary gesture, put arms around lesbian gold medalist Ireen Wust.

We never would have witnessed the meeting between King and a 17-year-old, Vladislav Slavskiy, the only openly gay teenager in Sochi, who appeared on the hotel terrace trailed by a Sundance Institute film crew making a documentary about him apparently at the invitation of the U.S. State department, and told King, “I think I need to leave Russia. I am afraid to stay in Russia.”

He was outed when schoolmates hacked his Facebook page, he said. Since then his teachers and a school psychologist have hectored him to “change” his sexuality, or to hide, and he has been beaten and harassed repeatedly by other students.

Said Slavskiy: “They try to rape me, they send me awful things, they put me dirty water, they put me urine.”

King: “If we could do one thing for you, what would it be? How can I help you?”

Slavskiy: “I don’t know how you can help me.”

We wouldn’t have seen the arrests and beating of the Pussy Riot punk band members, or the detaining of an Italian transgender, which likely didn’t upset the majority of Russian society, which remains deeply conservative. We wouldn’t have seen how much of a Soviet state still exists here: The head of Russia’s Communist Party held up a hammer-and-sickle banner at short track speedskating in the Iceberg Palace, after IOC and Russian officials had spent two weeks trying to suppress political opinions.

If the Olympics hadn’t come to Sochi, we also never would have seen so many things to admire: the grandeur, proud beauty, creativity, industry and the deep strength of the country. Russians worked back-breakingly hard to build these Games and to make them a success. The IOC’s Jean Claude Killy told the Wall Street Journal 100,000 people slaved 24 hours a day for seven days a week to get Sochi ready. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak estimated the project should have taken “tens or dozens of years,” instead of six. But those were just abstractions compared to the reality of the stamina on exhibition here.

The construction workers were still building and caulking even as the Games drew to a close. An impossibly handsome and hockey-crazed young man named Alexander “Sasha” Pankratov lived around the clock in makeshift quarters off a small hotel lobby, where he fed and slaked thirsts of the foreign visitors, giving them chicken sandwiches at 4 a.m. and making them coffee again in the morning. “This is challenge for us,” he said.

“The commitments we took on … seemed fantastical and impossible to fulfill,” Kozak said. “Russia managed to prove to itself and the rest of the world that we can cope, that we are capable of making the impossible possible.”

Kozak also said, “The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of Olympic gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia.”

But the “new Russia” is a loaded paradoxical phrase that also means the graft, the skimming by hated oligarchs, the hoarding musclemen who are the roadblocks to wholesale progress.

Sochi’s Olympic Park could easily, like other Olympic sites, fall into debt-ridden disrepair while the moneymen make off with the profit. Then, again, maybe something better will happen. If the Olympics hadn’t come to Sochi, we never would have seen the hard-to-fathom resilience of a place that struggles on, daily, against a plunging economy and a tide of corruption. Hopefully Sochi’s Olympic Park will endure.

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