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Sochi’s a Disaster. Does It Matter?

In Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, Russia clocks in at number 127: tied with Pakistan but more corrupt than Egypt and Belarus. It comes in at 148 on Reporters Without Borders’s press freedom rankings. The decision, then, to hold the Winter Olympics in Russia was always going to be something of a gamble, making the question as to whether the site would be ready on time anyone’s guess.

Because of the secrecy, there was no telling what athletes, reporters, and guests would find when they finally arrived in Sochi for the games, which begin this weekend. But it’s doubtful they expected the disaster Sochi has become. Every day brings new stories, some bizarre and some quite serious, all of them likely to give Vladimir Putin and the heads of the International Olympic Committee indigestion.

Incidentally, they can try to calm that indigestion with yogurt, but Russia is currently banning the popular Chobani Greek yogurt from the games, prompting the intervention of Senator Chuck Schumer, who had to appeal to Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, declaring, “There is simply no time to waste in getting our Olympic athletes a nutritious and delicious food.”

None of this, amazingly enough, is a joke. And neither are the reports of wild dogs greeting hotel guests or of reporters being told not to ingest the toxic (and almost fluorescent) tap water. Concerns and complaints about one of the event’s courses caused American snowboarding star Shaun White to withdraw from one of the events. Reading that story on CBS News’s website, I couldn’t help noticing another nearby headline from its Sochi coverage: “Sochi Olympics: Ground zero for avalanches?”

No speculation, apparently, is beyond the realm of possibility: let your imagination roam free like the hotel dogs. In Sochi, anything can happen. The question looming over all this is: does it matter that the Sochi Olympics have been a comedy of errors thus far?

The answer has to do with one aspect of the games, and it’s not yogurt. At one point late this afternoon the top two headlines in the New York Times’s World section were “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone” and, next to it, “Terrorism and Tension for Sochi, Not Sports and Joy.”

And here we get to the serious part. The latter story, by Juliet Macur, was particularly bleak. After asking whether one of the tense issues related to the games had reached its boiling point, Macur wrote:

We’ll find out soon. At the same time, athletes will be winning medals. But will anyone notice?

Never before has the pre-Olympic chatter been less about the athletes or the sports. And never before has the conversation leading to the Games been so grim: suicide bombers have struck Volgograd, about 400 miles north of Sochi, three times since the fall — including strikes in December that killed at least 34 people.

Global security experts have called this the most dangerous Games ever, based on the location of the competitions, the seriousness of the threats (including one from the head of a terrorist organization who last summer lifted a moratorium on civilian targets), and the capability of terrorist groups to carry out their plans (several in that region already have).

Macur followed that with the kind of rebuke to the IOC that other authoritarian-hosted Olympics don’t usually earn:

“It was a very, very risky decision for the Olympic committee” to hold the Olympics in Sochi, said Andrew C. Kuchins, the director and senior fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a security think tank in Washington. He basically said what is on the minds of many people headed to the Games, and the many people — including athletes’ families and friends — who were too scared to attend.

What was the International Olympic Committee thinking?

In the end, few will remember whether the yogurt got to American athletes in time (though I’m sure Chuck Schumer will remind us), and most of the tap water does not, in fact, glow in the dark. As embarrassing as those are, they won’t be the metric by which these games will be judged, because the larger worry is whether the Russians can keep the athletes and spectators safe.

On CNN this evening, Wolf Blitzer asked Mitt Romney about granting the Olympics to Sochi: “Was that a mistake that the International Olympic Committee made?” It’s both too late and too early to answer that question. But the frequency with which it’s being asked on the eve of the games is an indication that a great many in the international community already think the answer is yes.


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