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October 24, 2014
Monday, February 3, 2014

The stray dogs of Sochi

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to a translation during an interview to Russian and foreign media in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on January 17.
By Ivan Briscoe
For the Herald

Putin seeking national glory in upcoming Games

THE HAGUE — Nothing and no one will get in the way of the Sochi Winter Olympics, and most definitely not a stray dog. In a city where every visitor will have to register his or her name with the authorities and be watched over by a huge police presence, it is sad to learn that canines fail to meet the required standards set down in Russia for predictable and controlled behaviour in a high-security environment. The risk is self-evident. “Imagine if during an Olympic Games a ski-jumper landed at 130 kilometres per hour and a dog runs into him when he lands. It would be deadly both for the jumper and the stray dog.”

A macabre mid-piste collision such as this, with dog and man flung helplessly toward their fate in front of a perplexed global audience of millions, was offered in an interview with a US television network by the head of a local firm as the reason for the last-minute extermination of stray dogs. Then again, perhaps it is wise for Sochi to be on its guard. For if these grandiose Olympic Games are to be cherished and protected from an A-list of threat potential, running from Islamist terrorists through to environmental protesters, democracy activists and gay and lesbian people, then surely it would be foolish to let a mangy Caucasian mutt carry out a live assassination.

Should Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wish be granted, perfection will indeed by the defining feature of Sochi once it all starts on Friday. Almost everything about the Games is imbued with his resolve: it is his holiday home that is nearby, his favourite sporting endeavours that are being contested (except judo and fly-fishing), his confessed intention that these Games be regarded as a “moral moment” for renascent Russia. Having alternated the presidency with the post of prime minister without a break since 1999, Putin also bears chief responsibility for the extraordinary overspend on Sochi, which at US$51 billion almost certainly surpasses Beijing to become the most expensive Olympic tournament ever held.

It beggars belief to discover that out of this total, 20 percent was spent on railway infrastructure, and US$6.8 billion on a single train link between the sub-tropical Black Sea resort of Sochi — where temperatures are currently in the decidedly de-iced range of eight degrees — and the snow fields of the Caucasian mountains. But it beggars the mind to know that this huge enterprise in steel, concrete and national resurgence should, when all is done, merely serve as a platform for the sort of cult sports that are impossible for the vast majority of the world’s population to replicate without the coming of a new Ice Age. Even Ozymandias might crack a smile.

So, at one and the same time that Sochi’s geopolitical vulnerability and meaning are discussed, it is sensible to be aware that the principal public memory of the affair is likely to be of some unknown man travelling at extreme speed over pack ice on a tea tray, dressed in a lurid red body condom. Having dispelled that thought, consider the complexion of the Sochi Games’ multiple nerve-spots.

Putin’s desire is doubtless to rekindle the Russian spirit of the indomitable, slicing through mountains because it has been decided thus. But what he and his colleagues may perceive as an invocation of Borodino and Stalingrad and countless other battlefield wastages of life, all in the name of Mother Russia, rings a bit hollow. The discontents that would break the security rings around Sochi suggest the post-Soviet resurrection has either been pretty Soviet, or not much of a resurrection.

Calling these “threats” absolves anyone in the Kremlin from worrying about anything but civil peace in downtown Sochi. But Ukraine, which was bullied by Putin late last year into withdrawing from an integration agreement with the EU — and whose borders are only 200 kilometres from Sochi — is in deep convulsions, while its pro-Russian president has gone on sick leave. The “black widows”, female Islamist suicide bombers from Dagestan, are on wanted notices across the police offices of Sochi, which is not to say that the drainage of security personnel toward the Black Sea resort will not enable terrorists to strike elsewhere. Russia is large, and they managed to bomb Volgograd three times last year.

All manner of dissenting voices and democratic demands have been squeezed and crushed in the time since Putin’s presidential victory in 2012. One of these most resonant causes of outrage in the West has been treatment of gay and lesbian people, who seem to bring out the male changing room in Putin: they are welcome in Sochi, he conceded recently, but “just leave kids alone, please.” Legislation banning homosexual “propaganda” has already caused no end of trouble to a season of festivities to celebrate ties between the Netherlands and Russia. Dutch politicians upbraided Putin on his homophobia, while the pro-government media responded by depicting Amsterdam as a cesspit, fleshpot and opium den, which can hardly have harmed tourist figures.

One or more of these grievances may flare in some way within the sporting compounds. But it is more likely that the 40,000 police officers, multiple check-points, body searches and bomb dogs, but not strays, will quell any thought of public complaint. Russia will own one of a number of global sports fests that have sought to rehabilitate authoritarian regimes. A public event will be held as if in a police state. It will redound to national image and glory even as it ignores a possible backlash. And it will cost a vast amount of money just at the moment that the Russia economy starts to list. All in all, best just concentrate on the ski jump.

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