On the

Edge

Sochi is close to Russia’s disputed border with Georgia and to the political tinderbox of the north Caucasus. Just how secure can these Games be?

BY Alexander Wolff

Dangerous passions continue to burn over the issue of independence for the states of the North Caucasus. This rally was held in memory of the more than 40 people killed in the March 29, 2010 suicide bombings in the Moscow metro, for which the terror group the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The renovated building at 11 Machabeli Street in Tbilisi houses the Georgian National Olympic Committee (GNOC). Behind the whitewashed facade, sleek offices speak to a country eager to move on from a complicated past. Between the entrance and the sidewalk, stretching up to the third of the building’s three stories, stands a handful of Nordmann firs—in the Georgian language, sochi trees.

Kumaritashvili’s luge, photographed shortly after his fatal crash in Vancouver, is now a prime relic at the Georgian Olympic Museum in Tbilisi.
Michael Sohn/AP

But the modern sheen and the greenery can’t conceal everything. History tells us that at this very address during the 1930s, when Georgia was a republic of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria directed a campaign of terror that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Today, in the Georgian Olympic Museum on the ground floor, a single death loops on a TV monitor: that of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who, hours before the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, lost control during a training run and was killed when his head struck a steel support pillar. Steps away from the screen are Kumaritashvili’s sled and his cracked helmet.

Ketevan Otarashvili, the manager of the Georgian Olympic Museum, holds the cracked helmet that Kumaritashvili was wearing when he crashed in Vancouver.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

If such morbid details command our attention, it’s for reasons of recent history, contemporary politics, geographic reality and the Sochi Olympics. These Games, taking place on the doorstep of one of the most volatile regions on earth—the Muslim lands of the North ­Caucasus—are as much Caucasian as Russian. The North Caucasus is the ancestral homeland of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers who allegedly set off two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, and Islamist militants from the region have threatened attacks on the Sochi Games.

Georgia, which declared its independence from the collapsing U.S.S.R. in 1991, is not a Muslim country, but its conflicts with Russia over two disputed regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, contribute to the area’s instability. Within walking distance of Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, site of the opening ceremony, lies Abkhazia, which Russia recognizes as an independent state and props up economically but which Georgia furiously regards as part of its own territory. Russians will tell you that Sochi’s Krasnaya Polyana (Red Valley), in which Olympic skiing, jumping and sledding are taking place, is named for the color the bushes turn in the fall, but elsewhere in the Caucasus that name evokes the blood spilled there in 1864, when Russia eradicated hundreds of thousands of Circassians, one of Georgia’s many ethnic subgroups, from their tribal lands. The descendants of the victims consider it a sacrilege that the world is attending a $50 billion party on the site—and on the 150th­ ­anniversary—of a genocide.

Putin—here, basking in the spotlight at the 2008 Beijing opening ceremonies, even as Russian troops were marching into South Ossetia—pushed for Sochi as 2014 Olympic host, putting his personal prestige on the line to ensure security.
John G. Mabanglo/EPA

If it’s the Olympics, it seems, it’s time for the Georgian people to bury their dead. Nodar Kumari­tashvili was only one of them. In August 1992, several weeks after the opening of the Barcelona Games, war broke out in Abkhazia between Georgians and Abkhaz separatists. The conflict would last more than 13 months and cause the deaths of as many as 20,000 civilians, most of them Georgians. In August 2004, during the first week of the Athens Olympics, dozens died in fighting in South Ossetia, the breakaway region of north-central Georgia. Four years later, as Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Russian troops entered South Ossetia after fighting broke out between local separatists and Georgian troops. Russian forces then moved farther into Georgia and bombed targets up to the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital. Today a shaky peace prevails between the two countries, but it’s a Pax Russica, with Moscow recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South ­Ossetia but essentially controlling both territories.

Today a shaky peace prevails between Georgia and Russia, but it’s a Pax Russica. Georgia nearly boycotted these Winter Games.

The implications of all this are a constant preoccupation of the GNOC staff at 11 Macha­beli Street. By virtue of its proximity to Sochi, Georgia is practically a cohost of these Olympics. The Imeretinskaya Valley, home to the coastal cluster of Olympic venues, has a name as Georgian as Sochi, and from the 11th to the 19th centuries the Kingdom of Georgia included the entire Sochi region. Yet Georgia nearly boycotted these Games. Last fall Russian organizers outraged Georgians by loading Abkhazia and South Ossetia into a credentialing database as independent entities.

There was satisfaction in the GNOC’s corridors on the October day I visited. The International Olympic Committee had just sent a letter stipulating that the Georgian committee is the only entity it recognizes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But as I discovered on a journey through Georgia, 11 Machabeli Street isn’t the only place in the country to come with a poignant backstory. And behind every address you’re likely to find Russia, or tragedy, or both.

32 Nodar Kumaritashvili Street
Bakuriani
An impromptu memorial to Kumaritashvili took shape in Whistler, British Columbia, in the hours after his death.
Gero Breloer/AP

Davit Kumaritashvili and his wife, Dodo, learned of their son’s death at dawn on Feb. 14, 2010, from neighbors and townspeople who, upon seeing the news on TV, had begun a vigil outside the family’s home. Eight days later thousands of people convened again in this ski town to pay their respects. Nodar’s body lay inside the Kumari­tashvilis’ house, draped in a Georgian flag and encircled by candles and icons. Among his personal effects returned from Canada was a toy rifle he had promised to bring back for a little boy next door. As mourners prepared for the funeral feast and a choir sang Georgian chants, the boy, a four-year-old named Dmitry, played with the rifle, telling people, “Nodar brought me this.”

Kumaritashvili, here on an early training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre, was set to compete in his first Olympics.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

I had been warned off visiting the family. Dodo had been hospitalized for two surgeries since 2010, and she and Davit still suffer from the trauma of their son’s death. But Davit greeted me warmly, perhaps because hospitality is a vaunted virtue of Georgians. “I never say no to foreign visitors,” he said. “When they take the time to travel a long way, how can I refuse them? This is a way not to feel alone, and to express gratitude that someone cares about Nodar. That you come from a faraway place and show interest in my son and my family’s story, it’s a kind of consolation.”

Davit proudly displays a painting of Nodar, now a hero to a country struggling in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

He escorted me to a room upstairs that had been turned into a museum of his son’s life. He pulled open drawers stuffed with letters and gestured at artifacts arrayed on walls and shelves: Nodar’s laminated Vancouver credential; a framed letter of condolence from the president of Poland; a memorial blanket made by a chiropractic student from Oregon; a certificate of membership in the Olympic Order, awarded posthumously on behalf of former IOC president Jacques Rogge. Felix Loch of Germany, the men’s singles luge winner in Vancouver, had his gold medal melted down and resolidified into two disks; he donated one of them, etched with a portrait of Nodar and the years of his birth and death, to the Kumari­tashvilis. It is one of their most cherished possessions.

Though Davit, a youth luge champion himself, is closely following journalistic investigations into Nodar’s death, his main frustration is with the Georgian government’s failure to honor his son’s legacy.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

Davit led me to a table outside, where he poured tea and served sliced pears from trees in the family’s yard. In the Georgian Orthodox faith, he explained, the soul of the dead stays with the family for 40 days before ascending to heaven. “You see that there are no pigeons here,” he said, gesturing around the grounds. “Well, every day during those 40 days two would come, a white one and a black one. The white one would sometimes fly inside the house. My wife would keep candles and sacred foods out on a table, and the white one would eat, even eat cake. Meanwhile the black one would sit outside, waiting. After exactly 40 days, the two flew off.”

Since 1976 four Kumaritashvilis—from three generations—have competed internationally in luge for the Soviet Union or for Georgia. That’s what makes it so difficult for the family to accept that Nodar died because of “driver error,” the narrative pushed by some of the same functionaries who for nearly a year before the Games had downplayed concerns about the safety of the Vancouver course. “Of course they did not want to kill Nodar,” says Davit, who won multiple Soviet youth luge titles, “but they wanted to disgrace him as a sportsman. I’m not just some father with no connections to this sport.”

In phone conversations from Vancouver, Nodar had shared with his parents his doubts about the final curve of the course, a 270-degree turn in which others had already crashed. The rule of thumb for a luge track is that speed should not exceed 130 kilometers per hour. On his fateful run Nodar was clocked at nearly 144. Davit believes the accident, which led to the immediate closure and eventual shortening of the course, turned his son into a kind of crash-test martyr. “Nodar,” he says, “saved them all.”

Vancouver luge champion Felix Loch had his gold medals melted down and resolidified into two disks; he donated one,etched with a portrait of Nodar, to the Kumaritashvilis.

Davit’s anger isn’t so much with Cana­dian Olympic officials or Vancouver organizers; the latter covered the cost of the funeral and paid the family an undisclosed sum as compensation. Nor is it with luge officials or venue supervisors, even though Davit has been urged to file a wrongful-death lawsuit and is closely following the work of journalists still investigating who knew what when. More than anything, Davit is frustrated by his own government, which he believes is making a mess of efforts to secure his son’s legacy. Soon after Nodar’s death, the IOC helped hatch plans to build a regulation luge track in Bakur­iani, named for Nodar, that would host a memorial competition every year. The International Luge Federation, the GNOC and the Georgian government all promised assistance. Plans were announced and a spot picked out. But nothing can happen until the government preps the site and installs utility hookups. Nearly four years after Nodar’s death, neither has been done.

Villa Tsakadze
Bakuriani
At his home in the mountains, Koba Tsakadze has devoted an entire room to showcasing the medals and artifacts from his long career as a ski jumper.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

I had reached the Kumaritashvili home by ascending to more than 5,500 feet, mostly by way of a winding 10-mile road from Borjomi, a town famous for the eponymous mineral water known throughout the old Soviet Union as a hangover cure. Twice Borjomi and Bakuriani have jointly mounted an Olympic bid—once during Soviet times and once, under Saakash­vili, for the Winter Games that Sochi won.

Known during Soviet days as the Pearl of the Caucasus, Bakuriani had been the principal training center of the regime’s winter-sports machine. The town featured ski trails, two ski jumps and, beginning in 1974, the regulation luge track where the Kumaritashvili men learned to slide. After the breakup of the U.S.S.R., the jumps and the track were left to deteriorate. But Bakuriani’s abiding glory is its setting, in the cup of a volcanic crater, where crosswinds could be kept at bay if only the ski jumps were brought up to code again. Or so said my host.

At 79, Tsakadze, a four-time Olympic ski jumper for the USSR known as the Flying Torpedo, is in far better shape than Bakuriani’s once-glorious jumps.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

“I have been to many winter resorts and to five Winter Olympics, and I haven’t seen a natural environment as good as Bakur­iani’s,” Koba Tsakadze told me in his home, a chalet that overlooks peaks covered with snow and pastures studded with cows. Tsakadze, who jumped in the 1956, ’60, ’64 and ’72 Games, was the only winter Olympian from Georgia until Lille­hammer in ’94. He’s 79 now but every bit as trim as the six-time Soviet champion who won 10 international meets over two decades. Nicknamed the Flying Torpedo, he helped develop the aerodynamically compact style that is standard today, in which the jumper leans out over his skis.

Tsakadze ushered me into a huge room devoted to his jumping career. Crammed with books, trophies, medals and banners, it’s a testament to the fame that being a pioneer of human flight can deliver. Tsakadze never could quite figure out ­the landing—“He needed his hands,” says Tengiz Gachechiladze, editor of the Georgian sports daily ­Lelo—but he was fearless and charismatic. Neither of those qualities seemed diminished in the weak late-afternoon light that filtered through his west-facing windows.

Back in Tbilisi, in the haunted house at 11 Machabeli Street, I had leafed through The Golden Book of Georgian Sport. In it I found an explanation for Tsakadze’s absence from the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble. On a questionnaire he was sent before the Games, he had cited his personal coach as his coach. The Soviet national coach took this as an affront and left him off the team. “After the Olympics,” Tsakadze is quoted as saying, “he was sacked for this.”

Tsakadze may have jumped for the U.S.S.R., but he was and is a Georgian. He is another reminder that it’s the fate of a Georgian to be entangled with his imperial neighbor.

I repeatedly asked Tsakadze about the episode, but each time his stream of consciousness sluiced off in another direction. In conversation, apparently, the Flying Torpedo leads with his head as much as he once did off the lip of a jump. He addressed the subjects he wanted to. He said that at his first Olympics, in 1956, he was part of a delegation of 11—“four athletes, seven KGB”; that it’s a scandal that facilities in Bakur­iani have been left to rot; that his son, Kakha, who jumped in three Olympics, has settled in Chicago. Then he raised a finger and led me to a bookshelf. He pulled from it a well-thumbed English-language collection of John Updike’s poetry. It opened almost on its own to a short verse called Tsokadze [sic] O Altitudo, which includes this stanza:

Beneath his nose, the ski tips shake,
Descending down the deepening wide
Bright pit of air, arms at his side,
His heart aloft for Russia’s sake.

In fact, Tsakadze did nothing for Russia’s sake. He may have jumped for the U.S.S.R., but he was and is a Georgian. This Rabbit Angstrom of the Caucasus reminded me anew that it’s the fate of a Georgian to be entangled with his imperial neighbor.

Stalinis Gamziri 32
Gori
Visitors to the Josef Stalin Museum in the dictator’s hometown of Gori can contemplate artifacts from Stalin’s life, as well as portraits and a marble bust.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

Iosif Dzhugashvili chose the name Stalin because it means man of steel in Russian. In fact, Stalin was a Georgian, born in Gori, a small city just south of the Caucasus, the son of an alcoholic cobbler and a woman Stalin would later call a whore to her face. Stalin spoke Russian with a Georgian accent, fired up Georgian folk music on the gramophone and preferred the libation of his homeland, Kakheti red wine, to the vodka that was the usual sacrament in the corridors of the Kremlin. I gleaned these details from exhibits at the drafty Stalin Museum in downtown Gori, which sits beside the relocated cottage in which Stalin was born and the bulletproof railroad car he took, in 1945, to meet with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Yalta.

During the 2008 war with Georgia, Russian planes bombed Gori. Two years later, when Georgian authorities took down the 20-foot-tall statue of Stalin that commanded Gori’s central square, they did so at night, with the square sealed off by police.

Stalin spoke with a Georgian accent and fired up Georgian folk music on the gramophone and preferred the libation of his homeland, Kakheti red wine, to vodka.

The statue’s removal was met with the most contemptuous reaction: indifference. But since then Stalin has become a litmus test for Georgian politicians. Saakashvili’s United National Movement rarely passes up a chance to distance itself from all things Soviet, so the then president praised the removal of Stalin’s statue to what he called “the dustbin of history.” On his first day in office, in 2004, Saakashvili had vowed to restore “Georgia’s territorial integrity” and said he hoped to deliver his next inaugural in the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi. It was the kind of bluster that, years later, led Putin to say, “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls.”

Saakashvili’s successor, Bidzina Ivanish­vili, an oligarch who made billions in Russia, ran and won in 2012 on a platform of improved relations with Moscow. And so, as Putin has taken to praising Stalin, whose dacha in Sochi is a tourist attraction, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party has been reluctant to treat Old Joe as a pariah. Last fall the government authorized the return of his statue to the grounds of the Stalin Museum.

Which raised the question: Where was it? I asked around. A succession of Gorians led me from the Stalin Museum to a mini-mart on the edge of town to a handful of armored policemen and finally to the city’s municipal works depot. There, down a rutted unpaved road, in the roofless shell of an abandoned building, I found Old Joe—facedown in the dirt.

How the mighty fall: Last year the Georgian government authorized the return of his statue to the grounds of the Stalin Museum, but for now Old Joe lies facedown in the dirt in an abandonded building on the grounds of the Gori municipal works depot.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated
Dvani
border with South Ossetia
Life in the region brings daily reminders of the ongoing tension. Here, a Georgian soldier guards the entrance to Dvani, on the South Ossetian border.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

Turning off Georgia’s main east-west highway, I headed north toward the foothills of South Ossetia, the auton­o­mous district that, beginning in the early 1990s, expelled some 30,000 ethnic Georgians. After five or six miles I hit a police checkpoint, but soon enough I was waved on. Officials welcome journalists who turn up here; Georgian settlements such as Dvani are the front lines in a low-grade propaganda war, with reporters as proxy combatants.

South Ossetes want to be part of an autonomous union with North Ossetia, over the mountains, and to have a closer relationship with Russia. Putin has been happy to oblige them. Citing Soviet-era maps, Russian troops over the past few years have gradually moved the administrative border of the district some 400 meters into Georgia. A week before my visit they had declared three more Georgian houses to be on the wrong side of the line and given the resident families two days to vacate them.

The Georgia-born Gedevanishvili, a two-time European medalist, moved to Moscow at age nine to train, but left after seven years because of strained relations between Georgia and Russia. She has trained abroad ever since.
Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

Georgia’s location on the peripheries of the Russian, Ottoman and Persian empires had long left its fate to the whims of czars, sultans and shahs. But when you believe your national dignity is being ground into the dust, you try to restore it however you can. Georgian figure skater Elene Gede­vanishvili, now 24, was a top 10 finisher at the 2006 Olympics in Turin and the bronze medalist at the 2010 and ’12 European championships. Because there’s no rink of standard dimensions in Tbilisi, at age nine she moved to Moscow to train. After seven years there, with relations between Russia and Georgia deteriorating, she left to train in the U.S., Canada, Switzerland and Austria. To lure her back, Saakashvili had a regulation rink built in the coastal city of Batumi. But Gedevanishvili still trains abroad.

In 2009, Saakashvili asked the IOC to move the ’14 Olympics from Sochi because it was in what he called a “very dangerous” region. A year later the Georgian parliament lobbied the European Union to oppose Russia’s role as host so long as Moscow posted troops in Georgian territory. But soon after Ivanishvili replaced Saakashvili, his government decided to participate in the Sochi Games.

Yet even Ivanishvili would soon be forced by events to reconsider. On Oct. 6, several days after I left, Sochi organizers featured in the torch relay Russian pilot Ivan Nechayev, who had flown a military plane during the 2008 war. “Putin will not miss a chance to maximally humiliate us,” Saakash­vili said, calling for the government to revisit its decision to send a delegation to the Olympics.

Georgians remained conflicted over a boycott. Some argued that Georgia would send only a handful of athletes to the Games, so why debase itself when Russian troops still occupy 20% of what Georgia considers to be its own land? Others counter that, precisely because of Georgia’s small Olympic footprint, a boycott would be a gesture with no impact. Perhaps that’s why, in a November poll, 66% of Georgians supported the government’s decision to participate.

I approached a couple of the villagers who had been evicted from South Ossetia, who stood with their belongings by the roadside. For 52 years Merab Korash­vili, 73, had lived in a house he built himself. Now he lives at his in-laws’ with eight others. “I blame the Russians,” he says. “Russia supports the Ossetians who took our lands.”

War has made refugees of many Georgians. This woman lives now in a resettlement area in Tbilisi.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

I asked another of the evicted men, 54-year-old Shalva Mikarash­vili, whether he felt Georgian athletes should go to Sochi. “Even if my son were a sportsman, I wouldn’t support his going,” he replied. “What’s happening here is more serious than the Olympics. My father built my house. I was born there. This is all to annoy Georgia, and to claw deeper and deeper.”

I headed the mile or so into the village and found a knot of men idling in the square. I brought up the Olympics. “The Olympics?” one said. “Sport?! Are you kidding? Fifty houses were burned here [during the 2008 war]!”

“What’s happening here is more serious than the Olympics. My father built my house. I was born there. This is all to annoy Georgia, and to claw deeper and deeper.”

“They’re taking our agricultural plots and homes and land,” said another. “We feel helpless. Whether or not Georgia goes to the Olympics, the Russians will continue their plans.”

Minutes later I felt a buzz in my pocket. It was my phone. Free Msg! Welcome to Russia. . . . Depending on your plan, calls made & received are $4.99/min. . . .

43º20’24.34” N, 40º1’3.72” W
Abkhaz border
Georgians describe Abkhazia as a kind of promised land, subtropical and pleasant—as captured in this view of the country’s Black Sea coast near Sukhumi. But because of the ongoing conflicts, Abkhazia remains eerily unpopulated and a fertile ground for possible trouble.
Kazbek Basayev/AFP/Getty Images

I didn’t go to Abkhazia. It’s hard to get there from Georgia without a detour through Russia, and I had no Russian visa. But I felt as if I’d been there; no one in Georgia could stop talking about it. Most Georgians described Abkhazia as a kind of promised land, subtropical and pleasant. Abkhazia is rife with the paradoxes that the cauldron of the Caucasus can produce: It’s a paradise, but because of recurrent conflicts it’s eerily depopulated. It was once home to both proletarian holiday camps and sanatoriums for the party elite. It produced genetically engineered monkeys for the U.S.S.R.’s space program and citrus so sweet that Moscow called Abkhazia the Soviet Florida.

Furious, Georgia blamed Moscow for encouraging the Abkhaz to break away. Clashes between Georgians and Abkhaz lasted for more than a year.

Over the centuries people from Abkhazia’s five ethnic groups, including Georgians, intermingled and intermarried. Independence movements would crop up from time to time, but the region was always regarded as part of Georgia. Then, through the 1970s and ’80s, universities, theaters and even soccer clubs split along Georgian and Abkhaz lines. As the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early ’90s, the Abkhaz government appealed to Moscow to welcome it as an autonomous republic within whatever Russian federation would emerge.

Furious, Georgia blamed Moscow for encouraging the Abkhaz to break away. Clashes between Georgians and Abkhaz lasted for more than a year. Tens of thousands died, and in the aftermath Russia appointed itself peacekeeper. Soon after taking over as Russia’s president, in 2000, Putin offered Russian passports to Abkhaz citizens and eventually opened trade with the region.

Six years ago Georgians gathered for a peace rally in Tbilisi’s Republic Square, a demonstration of solidarity across the country in reaction to Russia’s military action in Georgia and its recognition of sovereignty for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Cliff Volpe/Getty Images

In 2008 Moscow recognized Abkhazia’s independence, ostensibly to spare it from “genocide” at the hands of Georgians. Abkhazia uses the ruble and regards Russian as its lingua franca, while Moscow underwrites 25% to 40% of the region’s budget and controls its borders and ports. To help keep the Sochi Olympics secure, Russia sealed Abkhazia’s borders on Jan. 7 and will not reopen them until after the Paralympics end on March 16.

If mischief is to be made during the Games, Abkhazia has already proved to be fertile ground. On Sept. 9, Dmitry Vishernev, a diplomat posted to the Russian Embassy in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, was shot and killed in his driveway along with his wife, Olga. Four days later, in the Georgian city of Batumi, a policeman approached three men—a Russian citizen from the Caucasus region of Chechnya and two Georgians who turned out to be followers of the Wahhabi branch of ­Islam—to check identity documents. The Chechen opened fire and was wounded during the ensuing shootout. Russian authorities now consider the Chechen, Yusuf Lakaev, the chief suspect in the murders in Sukhumi. They also believe him to be the same Yusuf Lakaev who was freed in 2011 after serving a prison term for assisting Chechen rebels and who remains on a terrorist watch list.

3a Chitadze Street
Tbilisi
The Bridge of Peace, a bow-shaped pedestrian span over the Kura River in Tbilisi, officially opened in May 2010.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

To get a better sense of the security situation, I sought out Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank attached to the government. A large, beetle-browed man with a mordant wit, Rondeli served in some of the most delicate diplomatic posts during Soviet times, including as ambassador to Iran and Syria.

A former Soviet ambassador, Rondeli is now president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies. He says the Georgian government is doing everything it can to help the Russian security effort for Sochi.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

“Seven out of 10 Russians, if they drink with you, they ask, ‘Do you respect me?’ ” Rondeli told me over tea and fruit. “So respect is very important. And if you don’t respect them, they come as tourists—only in tanks—and then ask why you don’t like it.

“Russia is a former empire. But Russian leadership believes it is still an empire, and it wants to remain so. Ivan isn’t in good shape. He’s not clothed or fed, only told, ‘If you aren’t an empire, you’re not a good country.’ And ‘when you have the Olympics and the [2018 soccer] World Cup, you’re an empire again.’

“Russia shows the Georgian government that everything—­agreements, ­negotiations—are done by Russian rules. ‘We are not a party to negotiations; we are in charge.’

“They are peacekeepers. They keep the pieces.”

“Georgia has been continually accused of ‘training terrorists,’” Rondeli said. “Of course, we’re so weak we couldn’t do anything against Russia even if we wanted to.”

The farther north and east you go from Georgia, the more unstable and lawless the Caucasus becomes. Georgia’s border with North Caucasus states such as Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan, home to those radical Islamist insurgencies, is barren and porous. In May 2012, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested three suspected members of a terrorist group called the Caucasus Emirate after discovering a cache of explosives, shoulder-mounted missiles and rocket-propelled grenades within range of Olympic venues. A year later the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, Doku ­Umarov, called the disruption of the Olympics his group’s avowed goal. He claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in Moscow in 2010 and ’11. Three suicide bombings between October and December in Volgo­grad, some 425 miles northeast of Sochi, are thought to be the work of the Caucasus Emirate or a like-minded group.

Security forces have been much in evidence at the Sochi Games.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Georgia’s own security services, Rondeli told me, are cooperating with their Russian counterparts to help secure the Sochi Games, even if it’s not clear how much countries with no diplomatic relations can coordinate efforts. Worried that terrorists might cross the footbridge over the Abkhaz border in the Georgian town of Gali, the Russians ordered it closed in ­December. Still, what’s to keep a handful of Chechen or Dagestani terrorists from slipping over the mountains into Georgia and then into Russia?

“Georgia has been continually accused by the Russian authorities of ‘training terrorists’ and providing ‘safe haven,’ ” Rondeli said. “Of course, we’re so weak we couldn’t do anything against Russia even if we wanted to. Now we’re doing everything we can, so even if security measures fail, no one can accuse us of anything. I mean, the most expensive of all Olympics? We Georgians are not such bad guys as to spoil all that.”

49 Chavchavadze Avenue
Tbilisi
With his place on the Georgian team already set and his focus squarely on Sochi, Benianidze put in hours of training both on and off the slopes.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated
Skier Abramashvili is competing in his second Olympics in Sochi.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

If ever there were a day for Iason Abramashvili and Alex Benianidze to bear down in their workouts, this was it. Several hours earlier, on Sept. 29, the flame that will burn in the cauldron of Fisht Stadium had been lit in Olympia, Greece, and the two Georgian Alpine skiers, both already qualified for the Games, threw themselves into a regimen of stretching and weightlifting at the capital’s Vake Fitness Complex.

No Georgian has ever won a Winter Olympic medal, not even for the Soviet Union. But the deterioration of those facilities in Bakuriani hasn’t affected Georgian skiers. They train in New Zealand, Chile and Austria, under an Italian coach, because skiing is the lone winter sport with substantial funding. Half of the team’s $500,000 annual budget comes from the Georgian government and half from the Silk Road Group, a holding company with interests in a new ski resort in eastern Georgia. The dean of the Georgian delegation in Sochi will be Abramash­vili, a slalom specialist contesting his third Olympics. Like every veteran of the Georgian team, he bears the burden of the survivor. He grew up in Bakuriani with Nodar Kumari­tashvili and, only hours after Nodar’s death, carried the Georgian flag in Vancouver.

Abramashvili, who grew up in Bakurani with Kumaritashvili, led a delegation in mourning into the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, just hours after the luger’s death.
Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated

Luger Levan Gureshidze also grew up in Bakuriani, just down the street from Kumaritashvili. Gureshidze had been gripping the start handles at the top of the course, ready for his last training run, when Kumaritashvili was killed. In the aftermath Gureshidze chose not to compete. He took a year’s break from the track, and his form and luck have suffered ever since. In November, trying to qualify for Sochi, he was injured in a crash. He’ll miss the Games, which means that of the four remaining Georgian competitors, only Gedevanishvili, the figure skater, is not an Alpine skier.

“Vancouver was very difficult,” Abramash­vili told me. “It was a big emotional shock for everyone, particularly for me, because [Nodar and I] had been childhood friends. And all the people who kept coming with condolences . . . that kept it fresh.”

Church of the Birth of Christ,
Bakuriani
Davit (far right) was joined outside the family’s house by a crowd of mourners on the day of his son’s funeral.
David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Davit Kumaritashvili has no control over how fresh his son’s death will feel. But he has chosen to embrace its global resonance, and no nation­ality has been more extravagant in its sympathy than Canadians. In that room at home hangs a maple leaf flag inscribed with this dedication from a Canadian family: “Nodar will always be a hero.” There’s a badge from the Winnipeg police force. And commanding one wall is a seven-foot-high oil painting called Nodar’s Spirit, the inspiration of British Columbian artist Penny Hiebert.

Davit’ daughter and her husband urged him to find his way back into luge. They feared he would remain stupified with grief. So Davit now trains 10 aspiring sliders, ages 13 and up.

At an easel she set up in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond during the Olympics, Hiebert invited passersby to help her turn a rendering of a stand of giant Douglas firs in Vancouver Island’s Cathedral Grove—sochi trees, after a fashion—into a crowdsourced memorial to the dead Olympian. In some places the paint is more than an inch thick as a result of hundreds of brushstrokes by well-wishers, all of whom signed the back of the canvas. In May 2011, Hiebert astonished Davit and Dodo by knocking on their door one morning to give them the painting.

Davit hopes to build a museum to honor to his son’s memory. A collection box in his church is dedicated to the project.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

The funeral procession had conveyed Nodar’s open casket down a gentle hill into the center of town, to a plot by the church where he had prayed before leaving for Vancouver. There Dodo clutched a photo of her son posing with the Olympic rings, and officiants poured red wine into the grave before the burial. On the day of my visit Davit followed much the same route to his son’s grave. A three-dimensional bronze figure of Nodar on his sled, sliding in a track chiseled into the headstone, graces the memorial. Using this as his model, Davit demonstrated for me how Nodar was thrown to his death. He then left candy and flowers from his garden. And he pointed to an adjacent site, where he hopes to build a museum to hold all the objects in that room back at the house. A collection box inside the church is dedicated to the project.

Davit tends to the memorial at his son’s grave, which features a bronze sculpture of Nodar on his sled.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

Davit and Dodo’s other child, Mariam, and her husband, Shako, had urged Davit to find his way back into luge. They feared he would remain stupefied with grief if he didn’t fill his life with some purpose. So Davit now trains 10 aspiring sliders, ages 13 and up; in November he took the best of them to the Youth World Championships in Latvia. Locally his efforts are beginning to thaw the fear that chilled families of prospective lugers after Nodar’s death. First by training off the sled, then by returning safely from competitions, Davit’s young lugers steadily reassure their parents that the sport is worth trying.

Athletes need goals.Two of the aspiring lugers whom Davit is grooming got in some untraditional training recently in Tbilisi.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated

And so Davit turns beseechingly to his own government. “If I were to see a track here, I’d feel good,” he says. “I’d feel that the tradition continues. If young lugers have success, I’d see Nodar’s name in that next generation.”

Tbilisi: When the Sochi Olympics end, the turbulent relationship between Georgia and Russia will have to go on.
Jodi Hilton for Sports Illustrated