After a journey of joy across nine time zones and into space, the Olympic torch relay is approaching something the Winter Games’ organizers and Russia’s leaders didn’t plan for and certainly didn’t want: A city in mourning.
The Russian city of Volgograd is burying its dead this week – 34 victims of twin suicide bombings that went off just 400 miles from where the Sochi Games will be held. And in less than three weeks, the Olympic torch reaches Volgograd, stop 117 on an epic route toward the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
These Olympics are being dubbed Putin’s Games. For Russia’s top man, eager to impress the world and show he can pull off a major multinational event safely and successfully, that moniker could turn out to be a compliment or a curse.
President Vladimir Putin’s reputation on the global stage has already been battered in the run-up to the Olympics by the denunciation of Russia’s new anti-gay law, boycott calls, mounting costs and environmental concerns.
But more than anything, particularly with the soccer World Cup to come in 2018 across the nation, Russia has to ensure Sochi is remembered only for sporting feats.
Hardly anyone will perceive the games as a festive occasion if there are victims and devastation elsewhere, said Georgy Satarov, a former aide to President Boris Yeltsin.
For some competitors, anxieties about staying safe are already overriding podium ambitions and thoughts of post-competition sightseeing trips.
I’m just going to stay in the bubble, U.S. speedskater Tucker Fredricks said. I’m going to stay in my room, and go to the oval, and go back to my room. And that’s it.
Teammate Jilleanne Rookard said Russia will want to avoid a national embarrassment at all cost, but she was still concerned about the non-athletes who will not be offered the same level of protection as Olympians.
We worry about our parents, our family, our friends, Rookard said. They’re going to be normal tourists. I’m scared for them.
This isn’t how Putin wants the world to be talking about his pet project. Having aligned himself so closely with the costliest-ever Olympics, Putin’s legacy could be defined by this $50 billion-plus sporting extravaganza.
One suicide bomber blew up at Volgograd’s main railway station last Sunday, and another on a bus during Monday’s rush hour.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for Volgograd, the bombings highlighted just how vulnerable the Winter Games could be to militant attacks.