If all goes as planned, by the time this column hits the doorstep, I will have escaped this dastardly polar vortex en route to a coastal destination with a subtropical climate and palm trees.
That’s right; I’m headed to Russia to cover the Winter Olympics.
A 22-hour travel day and a 10-hour time change separate the Twin Cities from Sochi, a Black Sea resort town that will serve as the epicenter of a global event that already is overshadowed by threats of terrorism, Russia’s antigay laws, tales of corruption by President Vladimir Putin and his $51 billion Olympiad and, yes, warm winter temperatures that required snow to be stored.
Other than that …
It’s a shame, really. This should be an exciting time, a chance to celebrate athletes who train for years in relative obscurity in sports that don’t generally command our collective attention except in Olympic years. There’s something genuinely compelling about a curler from Gilbert, Minn., taking a break from his job as a junior high science teacher to compete for a gold medal.
How do you not root for the Jamaican bobsled team, a “Cool Runnings” redux, that will compete in Sochi with the help a social media campaign that raised thousands of dollars to cover expenses? And who doesn’t marvel at the courage it takes for someone to launch themselves into the sky off a ski jump?
The first event I’m scheduled to cover is Shaun White competing in something called snowboarding slopestyle, an event that makes its Olympic debut in Sochi. Anyone know the Russian term for, this is totally cool?
The Olympics have long been near the top of my career bucket list, and yet almost every conversation in recent weeks has begun with the same question: Are you nervous?
The honest answer: Yes, a little.
Any excitement is tempered by an uneasiness that comes from daily warnings about potential terrorist attacks and reports of “black widow” suicide bombers who may have pierced the so-called “ring of steel” that Russia’s security forces have placed around Sochi.
The threat level increased after a pair of recent suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd, a city only a few hundred miles from Sochi. Islamic militants claimed responsibility and vowed to carry out more attacks at the Olympics.
The desire of those militant groups is to establish an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus region. Their proximity to Sochi and deep-rooted hatred of Putin have put visitors on high alert about potential attacks and resulted in unprecedented security measures for an Olympic Games.
Various reports estimate that Russia has deployed 50,000 security personnel to protect athletes and tourists. Also, the United States reportedly will station two warships in the Black Sea in case Americans need to be evacuated.
And to think, the other two finalists in 2007 to host these Olympics were Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria. Incredibly, the International Olympic Committee chose Putin’s personal sales pitch — reportedly delivered in English and French — over visions of the von Trapp family singing in “The Sound of Music.” Personally, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens sound sort of appealing right now.
These are not the first Olympic Games that have been dogged by threats of violence, of course. The 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta demonstrated that an evil act can happen anywhere, at any time.
We also shouldn’t underestimate Putin’s narcissism and national pride in this discussion. Make no mistake, these are his Games, the Putin Olympics.
Vilified as an authoritarian leader, Putin undoubtedly relishes this opportunity to stand on the world stage and flaunt his political muscle. He wants to show that modern Russia is a strong, proud country that spent more money on these Games than every other Winter Olympics combined because, well, it can.
Putin doesn’t want anything or anyone to disrupt his moment, and the guess here is that he’ll devote as many resources and spend as much money as needed to make sure his Olympics aren’t tainted by violence and bloodshed.
“That’s also part of proving to the world that he’s just as good as the world is,” said Macalester College professor Peter Weisensel, who lived in the Soviet Union as a graduate student and now teaches courses in Russian politics and history. “They’re just going to smother any potential terrorists’ desire to make trouble. But then again, how far out from Sochi do you have to go before the rules change a little bit?”
Hopefully that question doesn’t get answered and the narrative can shift to the spirit of competition. These Olympics present a unique opportunity for those involved and those who will watch. Let’s hope that our lasting memory will be that we witnessed some amazing athletic feats and intense performances that made us happy to be in attendance.