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Russia’s Potemkin Olympic Village

MOSCOW – Remember the year 2007? Russia was starting to look like a world power again. Its economy was growing at a record 8.5% annual rate. Political life had stabilized. Support for President Vladimir Putin was stratospheric. The decade-long Chechen rebellion seemed to have been suppressed. And, to top it off, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Russia’s Black Sea resort, Sochi.

In many respects, it was a strange choice of venue: sunny Sochi has beautiful mountains but little or no snow. It is also 850 miles south of Moscow, with few direct flights from Europe, while the trip from the United States can involve up to four legs.

But in 2007, Russians were becoming more optimistic about their future. Addressing the Olympic Committee, Putin argued that awarding Russia the Games would not only allow it to showcase its post-Soviet achievements; it would also help the country through its political and economic transition. Nothing seemed too difficult for Putin, even mouthing unnecessary democratic platitudes for an Olympic committee whose members had already awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.

But, once construction got underway, the realities of modern Russia could not be so easily hidden. The colossal project, which cost more than $50 billion – more than all previous Winter Olympics combined – was expected to turn Sochi into a sporting paradise, packed with arenas and a new airport. Instead, corruption and construction accidents have plagued preparations, with hotels still unfinished just days before the opening ceremony.