The Sochi Games officially got underway earlier today with figure skating and freestyle skiing competitions, but a recent poll stated that nearly 30% of the Russian population is "skeptical" about whether hosting the Olympics is worth the reported $51B price tag, according to poll data cited by Matthew Bodner of the MOSCOW TIMES. This comes despite Russia President Vladimir Putin yesterday saying he was pleased to "see that there was complete consensus ... on the idea of holding these Games and hosting this event." In the poll, conducted by the Levada Center, 26% of respondents said that they were "uncertain about the real purpose of hosting the games," while 53% said that they "thought that hosting the Winter Olympics was the right thing to do." The "closest thing to a national consensus in the poll" was that 85% of Russians "expected their team to place in the top five in terms of total medals won." Nearly half of the people surveyed believed that corruption and waste "were the cause of the Games' massive price tag," while 34% "placed the blame on greedy and careless construction companies." The poll was taken at the end of January, and 1,603 respondents from 45 regions across Russia participated. The margin of error was 3.4% (MOSCOW TIMES, 2/6).
THE PUPPET MASTER: TIME's Simon Shuster writes "all eyes" in the days leading up to the start of the Games were on Putin, who "insists on managing the last details himself." SOCOG President & CEO Dmitry Chernyshenko said of Putin, "He considers these Games his baby. So it's natural that he's taking care of them himself." Shuster notes any security breach, "let alone a terrorist attack during the Games, could blow a hole through Putin's carefully constructed and fiercely guarded image as Russia's great protector." However, if all "goes smoothly, Sochi could be the redeeming triumph of Putin's career." The attention Putin has "lavished on 'his baby' has also made it an enormously tempting target for his enemies" (TIME magazine, 2/10 issue). In Salt Lake City, Michael Lewis writes the Olympics are "seen as a vanity project for Putin, right down to speculation that his reputed girlfriend, former rhythmic gymnastics champion Alina Kabayeva, will light the torch at the Opening Ceremony" (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 2/6). In Buffalo, Jerry Sullivan writes under the header, "Putin's Games, Win Or Lose." Sochi is seen as Putin's "chance to display Russia’s standing in the world, to flash its economic and sporting might a quarter century after the USSR’s fall." But to some, they "are also 'Putin’s Follies,' an ill-conceived and executed expression of his hubris and ambition." Putin and other officials insist that the Games "will go off smoothly and be a triumph for Russia." But critics say that he "got more trouble than he bargained for" (BUFFALO NEWS, 2/6). In Detroit, Gregg Krupa writes under the header, "Olympics Will Severely Test Vladimir Putin, Russia" (DETROIT NEWS, 2/6).
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: In London, Ben Hoyle writes Sochi is "surely the most scrutinised Winter Olympics since the first in 1924, and, as the opening has drawn closer, it has become increasingly obvious that facilities will not all be finished on time." Putin yesterday said, "Russia is ready to hold the Olympics." But Hoyle writes it "does not look that way, either on the coast or 31 miles away, in Rosa Khutor, in the mountains." The slope of the Extreme Park in Rosa Khutor was "still scattered yesterday with snow-covered piles of plastic tubing, wooden boards and an uprooted tree" (LONDON TIMES, 2/6). The AP's Angela Charlton reported the Olympic zone "still looks like a construction area." Some hotel rooms "aren't quite finished," and electricity outages "occasionally disrupt the intense security measures." Putin "obliquely referred to the unfinished nature of some sites, calling Sochi 'the world's biggest construction project'" (AP, 2/5). In London, Robin Scott-Elliot writes the venues are "stunning, but around them are fraying edges." In the areas near the venues and hotels, trees "have been hastily planted and secured with ropes to keep them upright" (London INDEPENDENT, 2/6). USA TODAY's Christine Brennan writes there "most definitely are serious infrastructure problems at these Olympics, with the Russians appearing to be completely overwhelmed by the monumental task of building an entire Olympic Games from scratch." Those issues are "taking all the oxygen out of the room," making it "all the more difficult for the real issues of these Games to bubble to the surface." Brennan: "It's almost as if ... Putin planned the whole thing, stealing the toilet paper and the light bulbs and the shower curtains himself, just to distract reporters from the stories that worry him far more" (USA TODAY, 2/6).
FRESH SECURITY CONCERNS: U.S. Rep Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who serves as House Homeland Security Committee Chair, yesterday said that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has “alerted airlines flying to Russia that they should be on the lookout for toothpaste and cosmetics tubes that might be used to hide explosive substances” (L.A. TIMES, 2/6). In London, Tony Bonnici notes the warning is “the latest in a flood of concerns and negative publicity over the Winter Olympics, amid fears that the Games could be targeted by Islamic extremists in Russia’s restive Caucasus region” (LONDON TIMES, 2/6). In Newark, Steve Politi writes under the header, “Fear Is The Biggest Storyline In Sochi, And The IOC Is To Blame.” The threat of terrorism is “always going to be part of the Olympics,” but the threat in Sochi is “at a different level, with each news report seeming worse than the next, and the IOC is to blame.” It gave the Games to a region "known for violence, at the edge of a war zone known to be a training ground for terrorists, in a country with a president who has used this moment to flex his biceps (literally and figuratively) on the international stage.” Putin has “promised safety for everyone, but it is hard not to wonder: If the organizers can’t remember to put doorknobs in the hotel rooms, can anyone really expect security will be flawless, no matter how many armed guards or security cameras are in the region?” (Newark STAR-LEDGER, 2/6).