By Timothy Heritage
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Has Vladimir Putin been inspired by Leo Tolstoy at the Winter Olympics?
For all the talk of war from Islamist militants before the Sochi Games started, the Russian organizers have delivered peace. All the drama has been on the snow and ice.
Criticism of the Russian president's record on gay rights, though not forgotten, has melted in the slushy snow as competition got under way and temperatures soared.
Security has been effective but light at the stadiums, with hardly a gun in sight. The brand new facilities have wowed the home crowd as much as the Russian athletes.
The roars from the stands as their nation started collecting medals has, for the time being, also drowned out concerns over the hefty price tag and reports of mismanagement of funds.
"It's a great Games for the athletes," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, a 1976 fencing gold medalist. "I've been speaking here with many, many athletes and I have not heard a single complaint."
Despite early worries about empty seats, it is also proving a successful Games for Putin and his country, desperate to prove it has advanced since Soviet times.
If Putin continues to prove his doubters wrong at the Olympics, Tolstoy's words in "War and Peace" could ring true: "Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait."
Tolstoy's 19th century masterpiece featured in the opening ceremony on February 7, when ballet dancers performed a waltz that brought to life a ballroom scene from the novel.
The ceremony swept through Russian history, including the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that brought communists to power and the thaw that ended the Cold War, and set the scene for the Games to focus on Russia's present and future.
So far, so good, for Putin, who seems intent on claiming the
title of another Russian classic novel which, like many of the events, is set in the Caucasus mountains; Mikhail Lermontov's "A Hero of Our Time."
Putin was in the grandstand to celebrate Russia's first gold medal, in the team figure skating, and the rise of tiny 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya, who could become the face of the Games.
The president met the victorious skaters to congratulate them but, hungry for more glory, he told them: "You have a lot of work ahead of you here, so don't relax."
On the track, there have been thrills and spills aplenty as the Dutch dominated speed skating with four golds.
On the slopes, the biggest drama was in the women's downhill, for the first time producing a tie for gold between Switzerland's Dominique Gisin and Tina Maze of Slovenia. Even one-hundredth of a second could not separate them.
Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters came to mind as Justine and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe of Canada won gold and silver in the women's moguls freestyle skiing, with elder sibling Maxime watching after failing to win a medal.
Austria's Matthias 'Flier' Mayer may not have read Ivan Turgenev's novel "Father and Sons", but he won gold in the men's downhill 26 years after father Helmut won silver in the Super-G.
Germany won all four gold medals in the luge and Norway dominated the cross-country skiing sprint, with Ole Einar Bjoerndalen also winning the biathlon sprint to secure a record-equaling 12th Winter Games medal.
There have been some notable disappointments too, including for the U.S. team. Speedskater Shani Davis, downhill racer Bode Miller and snowboarder Shaun White all failed to shine.
Miller and White grumbled about the warm weather, good for the people of Sochi sunbathing and swimming in the Black Sea, but bad for skiers not used to competing in mushy snow.
In a big blow for Russian fans, flamboyant figure skater Yevgeny Plushenko pulled out through injury.
But Putin looks on course for gold.
For months he endured criticism abroad over a law banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors, soaring costs which
a senior government official said could pass $50 billion and reports - which he dismissed - of corruption over Games funds.
All those problems could return to haunt him.
But protests have so far been snuffed out - they are restricted to a square far from the venues - and dire warnings of attacks by Islamist militants fighting an insurgency in the nearby North Caucasus have not materialized.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
The security "ring of steel" around Sochi appears largely responsible for keeping out would-be attackers - there are at least 37,000 security personnel in the area.
They include the Cossacks who for centuries were the defenders of the Russian empire's frontiers.
"This is an event on a planetary scale," said Valery Yefremov, a Cossack leader, describing working at the Games as "the very highest peak of our service to the Russian state."
The security forces are not letting down their guard. They have been trying to mop up suspected militants around the North Caucasus for weeks in what they see, to cite Fyodr Dostoevsky, as a crime and punishment operation.
Russian authorities have also not dropped a warning that women known as "Black Widows" may be preparing a suicide attack.
There is even a new threat to cope with, an appeal for an earthquake to punish the "atheists and pagans" hosting the Games on a site where Muslims died fighting for their homeland.
But the security is much less visible than many visitors expected, fulfilling a promise last year by the Federal Security Service - a successor of the KGB - that the protection would "not be in your face".
This is vital to the softer, more caring image that Putin wants Russia to project.
"This is not like Russia. Everything goes smoothly," said one surprised Norwegian tourist, Ivar Bogeberg.
It did not always look likely to turn out so well. In the "phoney war" before the Games, Putin was constantly under fire.
Even in the week before the Games, foreign media complained of unfinished hotel rooms and took up the cause of stray dogs being rounded up and in danger of being put down.
At the opening ceremony, one of the five circles that make up the Olympic Games logo did not light up because of a technical glitch and the choice of figure skater Irina Rodnina to light the Olympic cauldron raised eyebrows.
The triple Olympic gold medalist and pro-Putin lawmaker caused an outcry last September by re-tweeting a doctored photograph of U.S. President Barack Obama chewing and a hand waving a banana in front of him.
Putin, a former KGB spy, has taken the criticism in his stride in the last few months. But he allowed himself one outburst, showing he is still smarting from what he saw as unfair criticism over the Games.
"Back in Cold War times the theory of containment was created," he said this week. "This theory and its practice were aimed at restraining the development of the Soviet Union... what we see now are echoes of this containment theory."
Then it was a return to the smiles and the sport.
U.S. snowboarders swept the medals in the inaugural men's freestyle skiing slopestyle, easing pressure on a team that had been criticized by some American media.
China's Li Jianrou won the women's 500 meters short track speed skating, extending her country's winning streak at the distance to a fourth Winter Games, and compatriot Zhang Hong won the women's 1,000 meters title.
Canada is also holding its own, not only with the Dufour-Lapointe sisters but through Alex Bilodeau's gold in the men's freestyle skiing moguls, Charles Hamelin's triumph in the men's 1,500 meters short-track speed skating and Dara Howell's victory in the women's slopestyle.
PRISONER OF THE CAUCASUS
Germany led the medals table with seven golds as the midway mark of the Games approached. Canada, Norway, the Netherlands and the United States has four. Russia were seventh with two.
There is still much to come before the Games end on February 23, with Putin hoping the Russian team enjoys its own "Miracle on Ice" by winning the hockey gold, 34 years after the mighty Soviets were stunned by a U.S. team of college students.
For Putin, that gold would be more than a sporting victory.
It would lift his nation, despite an economic downturn, and be the fitting finish to the Games for Russia.
It would mirror what Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sought at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow - success on the sporting field to show how strong his country was.
Putin may also have his sights set on relations being strengthened with other countries, particularly the United States, even though Obama did not attend and sent a delegation which pointedly included gay officials.
Putin will hope that Lermontov, the 19th century Russian poet and novelist, was wrong when he wrote: "An unusual beginning must have an unusual end."
Controversy is simmering over comments by a Russian satirist who mentioned the Sochi games in the same breath as the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, presided over by Adolf Hitler. Putin's allies want an apology.
The IOC is also seeking clarification of the three-year jail sentence handed down to a local environmental activist, Yevgeny Vitishko, who campaigned against environmental damage he says was caused by Olympic construction work.
His case is seen by supporters as politically motivated and they regard him, to borrow the title of one of Tolstoy's works, as a prisoner of the Caucasus.
With victory in his sights, Putin is likely to grit his teeth and take more inspiration from Tolstoy's words: "A battle is won by he who is firmly resolved to win it."
(Reporting By Timothy Heritage)
- Sports & Recreation
- Vladimir Putin
- Leo Tolstoy