SOCHI, Russia -- The Sochi Winter Olympics were like the craggy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains and rocky beach of the Black Sea, which were both visible from Fisht Stadium, site of a victory celebration for Russia on Sunday night.
Like their setting, like Russia itself, the Sochi Games were breathtaking but difficult to embrace.
President Vladimir Putin was everywhere throughout the two-week spectacle, overseeing Russia’s $51 billion investment or corrupt boondoggle, depending on your point of view. Putin’s Games cost almost six times more than the Vancouver Games four years ago.
He smiled as much as a former KGB chief can smile during spectacular Closing Ceremonies. Putin won. Russia finished No. 1 in the medal count with 33 total and 13 gold, and Russian fans inside the stadium got a bonus when the cross-country skiers who swept the podium in Sunday’s 50K race received their medals during the farewell show.
The Games not only provided a propaganda boost to national pride and a validation of Putin’s rule but a distraction during the implosion of neighbor Ukraine.
Russia proved its might in staging a safe Games, despite fears of a terrorist attack from North Caucasus jihadists. All the angst before the Games seems like hyperventilating in retrospect.
“The thing that struck me was the involvement of President Putin,” said Larry Probst, U.S. Olympic Committee chairman. “He really owned the Games.”
Putin wanted to grab global attention and respect for his young country. Russia feels left behind by China. Harassment of dissenters, detention of environmentalists, suppression of gay rights and the horse-whipping of punk band members Pussy Riot by Cossack militiamen during their protest also showed the world that Russia is still a pseudo-democracy.
“This is what happens when you don’t agree with the government,” said band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, in town to promote the video, Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.
Said ceremonies producer Daniele Finzi Pasca: “Russia is an incredible enigma.”
In a pre-Games visit to the small beehive of an office of Republican Party leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, it became apparent what the opposition is up against. Putin is expected to run for a fourth term in 2018. He can cite the Sochi Games as a promise he delivered.
Before the tearful giant bear mascot blew out the Olympic flame, buses ran on time. Venues gleamed. Everyone got tired of being frisked, but security was not burdensome. Even the numerous stray dogs were adorable.
Despite early logistical problems, like brown water in hotels, problems were solved. The volunteers in their gaudy Bosco duds were terrific. In fact, it warmed into the warmest Winter Games ever. Part of the oddity of these Olympics was the lack of snow except on competition slopes. The mountain city was a brown place of mostly empty storefronts. Not a single fireplace blazed. No comparison to Whistler, and Sochi’s Olympic Park had the feel of a Potemkin village — nothing like Vancouver. Charm did not make the podium here.
The athletic performances were like the electric guitar players jamming in traditional Krasnodar dress: A jarring mix.
Many U.S. stars did not rise to the Olympic occasion, starting with Shaun White, who surrendered his goal of winning two snowboarding golds when he wimped out of slopestyle because he thought the course was too treacherous. Then he finished fourth in halfpipe. Vic Wild, a former American snowboarder who married a Russian snowboarder and obtained Russian citizenship because he was fed up with lack of financial support from the U.S. federation, became the first to win two golds, in the two slalom events. The U.S. women’s hockey team blew a 2-0 lead over Canada in the last three minutes and settled for silver again. American speedskaters, who usually provide the bread and butter, won one medal compared with 10 in 2010.
The United States enjoyed extreme success at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, where athletes in stunt sports imported from the X Games won 12 of the U.S. team’s 28 medals, including six of nine golds. The United States won the tally in 2010 with 37 medals. This time, second to Russia.
Two Miamians come home with two silvers. Short-track speedskater Eddy Alvarez, a Columbus High graduate, was instrumental in the 5,000-meter relay team’s second-place finish. Bobsled brakeman Lauryn Williams, a University of Miami graduate, made a remarkable transformation from track star to pusher in six months.
Figure skating wouldn’t be figure skating without a controversy. Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova beat South Korea’s Kim Yuna with a more difficult program, but the scoring system’s flawed rule on anonymity for judges fueled suspicion of favoritism for the local kid.
There were Olympic heroes, most prominently the Ukrainian biathletes who won the relay, then asked for a moment of silence in honor of protestors killed in Kiev. The politician husband of one of the women is a member of the opposition, and he managed to keep her focused with upbeat phone calls.
Halfpipe snowboard winner Iouri “iPod” Podladtchikov captured the feeling of many athletes when he gave his rendition of the “Hot. Cool. Yours.” motto of the Games: “Hot. Cool. And [expletive deleted] mine!”
Rate the Sochi Games above Atlanta 1996, which will remain in last place until a truly miserable Games comes along. Sochi is possibly in a tie for second-to-last with Nagano 1998, but it will take some passage of time for perspective. Sochi was not close to unseating Lillehammer 1994, still the most memorable, most authentic of the 12 Olympics this reporter has covered.
The best thing about every Olympics is getting to know the hosts. Russians, like Chinese, are opening up. Seven decades of communism discouraged friendly interaction.
Sasha Pankratov, a Sochi native who spent six months in Yonkers on an exchange program as a teen, created the Shaibu, Shaibu (score, score!) hockey bar in our media hotel. He covered the walls with memorabilia — photos, sticks and jerseys, including one from Siberia’s Metalurg team. He played old game videos. He was plunged into depression when Russia was eliminated, blamed the coach and asked others to share his sorrow with vodka shots. But in the end, he was satisfied with Russia’s performance.
“Yes, I think it was good Olympics,” Pankratov said. “Now it’s like New Year’s Eve. Happy but sad. Everybody just got to Russia and suddenly they are saying goodbye.”