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Considering the source, it was all very persuasive. As Jean-Claude Killy, the 1968 triple gold medalist in skiing who chairs the IOC's coordination commission, drily told reporters in 2011, "Mr. Putin told me Sochi has the best snow in the world. I have no reason not to believe him."
"That speech came from the heart," says Dmitry Chernyshenko, the Sochi native who serves as CEO of the organizing committee. "We're lucky that our state leader is the ultimate sportsman and sports lover. He understood the value of the Games, and of the Games' coming to Russia. That's why he has called the project his 'baby.'"
To fulfill his pledges to the IOC, Putin has, as Nowak says, enlisted Russia's oligarchs, the opportunists who became billionaires during the collapse of the Soviet Union by taking over vast amounts of oil, gas and metals, reportedly gaining control of some 40% of the country's GDP. Most of these two dozen men are patriotic Russians, and Putin has always been quick to exploit any sense of guilt or obligation, not to mention fear of arrest or persecution. Soon after assuming the presidency at the end of 1999, Putin summoned leading oligarchs to the Kremlin and essentially told them they could keep their fortunes only if they foreswore politics and ponied up when their country needed them to. The Sochi Olympics are Exhibit A of their country needing them to.
In 2005, 15 oligarchs pooled together $40 million to establish the Russian Olympians Foundation, a honeypot to cover training stipends, incentive bonuses and the salaries of top-level coaches. Three of those 15 also have leading roles in the development of Sochi. Roman Abramovich, the financier who owns Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League, is building hotels and infrastructure around the coastal cluster. Oleg Deripaska isn't much of a sports fan, but his industrial group underwrote the Olympic Village, the Main Press Center and the new airport terminal, as well as the transformation of a Stalin-era sanatorium into the Rodina, a hotel fit for oligarchs, in central Sochi.
But the oligarch most closely associated with the Games is Vladimir Potanin, who so loves skiing that he reportedly had a slope built within his $11 million Moscow villa. At the time of Sochi's first bid, in 1991, the Aibga Ridge above Krasnaya Polyana featured a series of remote snowfields for wealthy heli-skiers. Four years later, for bid number 2, Potanin sketched out plans for an Alpine resort, Rosa Khutor, to which his involvement lent considerable credibility. By the time he urged Putin to mount Sochi's third, ultimately successful bid, Potanin had begun to increase his investment in Rosa Khutor from $300 million to $2 billion. The resort will host the Alpine and extreme events next year.
A central tenet of Putinism is to restore Russia's pride after the humiliations of the Soviet endgame and the economic chaos of Boris Yeltsin's presidency during the 1990s. Sports have been essential to that effort. Like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Putin braids sports to the media he controls, whipping up nationalistic passions that also serve his political goals. Attracting major international events is a big part of that strategy: This year Russia will host the world track championships, the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the World University Games. After the Olympics come the world swimming championships (in 2015), the world ice hockey championships ('16) and soccer's World Cup ('18). A campaign is also under way to attract the '19 basketball World Cup (formerly the World Championships). In each case the event will be as much about meeting deadlines—a sport at which Russia hasn't been a podium regular—as about the prestige of playing host.
Potanin has also funded the Russian International Olympic University, the country's first sports-management academy, to be housed in a cluster of four high-rise buildings going up a block from the waterfront in central Sochi. In September the school will accept its first master's degree candidates. They'll study marketing, management and tourism, hoping to become the graduates who sell and stage the events that brand Sochi as an international sports city: Formula 1 (Sochi will become a stop on the circuit in the fall of 2014, with a course that wends its way through the Olympic Park), the World Cup (Sochi will be one of 11 cities around Russia to host) and professional hockey (Sochi is looking to attract a lower-tier team and install it in the Olympic Park after the Games as a full member of the seven-nation Kontinental Hockey League).
Notwithstanding Putin's wishes and the oligarchs' efforts, Russia's international athletic fortunes have not approached those of the communist era, particularly in winter sports. When Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia became independent republics in the early 1990s, they took with them some of the finest winter sports facilities of the Soviet Union, leaving Russian athletes few domestic places to train. It quickly showed: After finishing first in the medal count in Lillehammer in 1994, Russia hasn't placed higher than third. A sixth-place finish in Vancouver three years ago, with just three golds among 15 medals, led to the forced resignation of Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev. It didn't matter that he was said to have been Putin's old ski instructor.
The president, a karate black belt and former St. Petersburg city judo champion, is a sporting omnivore, whether skydiving, working a heavy bag, taking a Formula 1 car out for a spin or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes. The average Russian closely follows only a few winter sports, notably biathlon and figure skating, but the sport of the moment is hockey, and Putin has lashed himself to it. In early 2011, deciding he wanted to learn to skate, he engaged former NHL defenseman Alexei Kasatonov to give him late-night lessons. Within several months he was playing in pickup games and making cameos at youth tournaments. Putin's best friends own or run KHL teams, and Sochi mayor Pakhomov, a former player, is a fan too. There was huge pressure on the host Canadians to win hockey gold in Vancouver; in Sochi the burden on the home team figures to be even greater, if that's possible.
"During the Cold War the Soviet Union was able to deliver athletic successes that were a source of pride," says Natalia Roudakova, an assistant professor of communications at UC San Diego who studies Russian society and the media. "Now the sporting infrastructure is gone, coaches have gone abroad and, with corruption, much of the money for sports gets stolen. So Russia has a much smaller sports profile than the Soviet Union did. Objectively, it's unreasonable to expect Russia to be at the same level. But the expectations are still there, and when they're not met, there's disappointment and resentment.