The eyes of the world are on Sochi — and a good deal of the jokes are, too. As the reports have trickled back from the Olympic Village this week, we have laughed at accounts of unfinished landscaping, rolled eyes at photographs of toilets built halfway into walls or positioned in front of lounge chairs, and gasped at lethal-looking amenities that wouldn’t pass muster in a Detroit slum. “For media in Sochi, it’s more Potemkin village than Olympic village,” the Los Angeles Times declared, before asking earnestly how this could have happened when Russia has had seven years to prepare. Another article, which collated the funniest of the press corps’ anxious photographs, seemed ultimately to be asking a question: How can it be that organizers have failed so obviously to get any of the basics right but spent copious amounts making the buses look cool?
Well, Virginia, because that’s what authoritarian regimes do. They always have. At the same time as the Soviet Union was deliberately starving millions of comrades in the 1930s, remember, apparatchiks were directing the workers to install palatial, marble-studded, “radiant” underground railways in its capital city. In that strongmen usually make at least some effort to impress foreign journalists, Sochi has been a departure from the norm. But the principle is the same: Great on the grand gestures, appalling on the nuts and bolts.
This is an event that was conceived in political, not sporting, ambition. If you are wondering how a Winter Olympics could become the most expensive games in history, and, too, how up to $30 billion of its astonishing $50 billion budget could just have disappeared into thin air, then keep in mind that Vladimir Putin’s primary objective here was not to run a recreational event but to show off his power to the rest of the world and to turn a restive part of the Russian Empire into a cross between St. Moritz and the Island of Dr. Moreau. As Salon’s Josh Eidelson drily put it, the Kremlins’s unwavering opportunism has led directly to the preposterous sight of a cold-weather event being hosted “in a subtropical climate in the middle of what has been for the last two decades a veritable war zone.” It’s almost comical. Almost.
The New Yorker recalled this week that Putin was initially attracted to the KGB “life by ‘romantic’ dreams and Soviet spy films.” Which leads one to suspect that he’s rather enjoying the heightened security and locked-down ambience that he has reportedly overseen personally. The “strong and modern” approach for which his gang has plumped makes the Hunger Games look like a Victorian cricket tournament: There are tens of thousands of armed guards on the ground, complemented by countless drones in the sky and a network of bedroom and bathroom cameras that would make Chuck Berry blush. As for the Internet, any remaining doubts that the Web’s basic components must always remain in American hands should now have been banished. Forever more, advocates of America’s digital supremacy need point only to how nonchalantly the Putin government has transmogrified what was intended to be a liberating, quasi-anarchic collaborative tool into an all-encompassing surveillance machine. In Sochi, everything is subject to inspection and to theft: e-mails, phone calls, tweets, text messages, blog-entries — the whole kit and caboodle is being watched, hacked, stored, and mined. Take whatever paranoiacs such as myself believe that the NSA is doing and multiply it by ten thousand. Is the Cold War really over?
None of this is remotely surprising, of course. Russia has never managed to escape its penchant for authoritarianism, and it has never put a stop to the rank corruption and unmitigated state intrusion that have marked its governments from the time of Ivan the Terrible. But that we should have anticipated it does not make it any less grotesque. For all the happy-clappy “We Are the World” sentiments that have infused the games from the start, the Olympics has a fine heritage and one that is today being dishonored by Chekist clowns. Before they’d even started, the games had been marred by Russia’s increasingly draconian anti-gay laws — legislation that, per the New York Times, included a measure by which police would be permitted “to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or ‘pro-gay’ and detain them for up to 14 days.” Gays have it especially tough, yes. But, in truth, anyone who slips slightly outside of the government line is liable to be thrown in jail until such time as he has learned his lesson. Westminster with homophobes this is not.
It is often lost on modern observers that, at the end of his epic run from Marathon to Athens, Pheidippides keeled over and died on the spot. Not a great outcome for him, all told, but a testament to effort and to heroism nonetheless, and one that has informed some of that “Olympic spirit” that we hear so routinely translated into treacle by Coca-Cola and McDonalds every two years or so. If the photographs that are circulating the Web are any indication, were Pheidippides competing in Sochi this year, he would have likely expired after the first mile from the deleterious effects of unsanitary water — if, that is, he weren’t arrested for disseminating military secrets. “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” the Olympic motto promises. Next time around, one hopes, it will better describe the efforts of the athletes than the personal delusions of the host nation’s Tsar.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.