SOCHI, Russia — Vladimir Putin spent $51 billion to buy himself some good press, and so far it looks as if he'll get it.
Pictures of him sipping wine with Americans project a softer global image. Attending sporting events makes him look like a man of the people. Snuffing out terrorist threats and keeping the Olympics running on schedule offer an image of a tough, bottom-line taskmaster.
So the reviews of these Games have been appropriately positive — great weather, great efficiency and, most important, great safety. All of which is true. As for unfinished construction — most of which is getting closer to being finished — that was just some Western whining. And it only flames understandable national pride among the Russian citizens. It's a win.
So now the praise for Putin and his Olympics has begun. It's like watching fish snap at a lure, and it'll grow more prevalent as the Games wind down. It's not untrue, just a ridiculous lack of perspective.
The Olympics are always great. Always. The spirit of the competition and the magic that these events spontaneously and organically produce are unstoppable. Even if there were a terrorist attack, the worst possible thing imaginable, it wouldn't be the Games' fault. They happen everywhere.
The sunshine and warmth of Sochi are not a government production. Neither are the mountain views. A president doesn't get credit for the work ethic, spirit and brilliant personalities of his people.
As for, say, keeping the buses working or building architecturally beautiful venues or keeping protesters to a minimum, well, if you spend this much money on an 18-day event and employ who knows what kind of scare tactics, there is simply no level of incompetence that wouldn't deliver the expected results. None.
Of course, this was going to look and operate at near perfection. How could it not?
"A perfect Games isn't someone who blows the budget through the roof for no reason, has people suffer, shuts people up. How is that a perfect Games? Spends ungodly amounts of money, and then we are all going to watch it rot over the next 10 years."
That quote came courtesy of Michael Lambert, a Canadian snowboarder and, as far as anyone can tell, the first and only athlete to boldly look beyond the magnificence and dare to ask (at least in English) why this was necessary or what is the point or what happens when the torch gets snuffed out.
One of Putin's hopes was that Olympic athletes, coaches, officials and media would hush up and appreciate all he built for their enjoyment and convenience. It's worked.
Of course, he's going to draw praise from IOC officials. You stuff enough caviar in that crew and they'll express their love for anyone or anything.
The athletes, mostly, just want to compete. This is understandable. This is a lifelong dream, the stakes are high and the concept of a bigger picture isn't always clear. It's an individual choice to speak up, and there should be no expectation that others share Lambert's views.
Besides, he'll likely be criticized as some kind of buzz kill trying to look at the man behind the curtain because everyone is having a fun, fun time over here. How selfish he is, some are sure to say. You're just a snowboarder, dude, others will argue.
Of course, the party is always a good time … until the hangover comes.
Lambert wanted to speak, though. He wanted to challenge. After a press conference Saturday where he was asked questions about training and the course, he volunteered his opinions, first asking, "Really, no controversial questions?"
Later, he elaborated to the Olympic News Service. It didn't garner much attention until Bruce Arthur, a columnist from the National Post in Canada, wrote about it Sunday night.
It's clear that the 27-year-old had doubts and questions about Putin's wonder world.
"I am all for the purest form of sport in which all other distractions are shed with no considerations given anything but your own process," Lambert said. "At the same time, to act like there aren't a lot of very controversial things at play here, it's ignorant.
"It's not real. It's not reality."
Part of this is the price tag, an outrageous, record sum. It's not just the billions. It's what comes next. Bloomberg News reported that estimates call for another $7 billion just for upkeep over the next three years alone, yet Putin has said he doubts the money will even be available.
That estimate is likely low based on the clear substandard construction of so much of the infrastructure here. This feels more like a back lot of a movie studio than anything permanent, with buildings thrown up that look great on the outside but are a mess up close. There are door frames that can be knocked out with ease, floor tiles already cracked in facilities, walkways with bricks already wobbling.
And the Games themselves still have a week to go. What happens in the months and years to come? It's beautiful but for how long? Was it worth it? And will the next host nation have to be just as financially irresponsible to live up to the IOC's ever-rising scale of opulence?
As for the civil unrest, protesters for gay rights and environmental protections have been cracked down on elsewhere in the country, and that's far enough away to ignore, apparently.
We get it: Everyone just wants the party to roll on, to bask in the sun, to drink in the Champagne, to watch the shows. Everyone wants the athletes to just shut up. But as Lambert smartly noted, it isn't reality. And shouldn't everyone be on the side of a guy willing to at least ask?
"Just because I'm part of [the Games] doesn't mean I ignore it," he said. "We just don't see it because we are inside the bubble. … But that stuff is still real. That controversy is still real."
He's right, but if you spend enough, you can sell the unreal so well, sell the bubble so perfectly, that no one wants to hear anything else. At least not while the band is still playing.
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