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Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”. In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, “I can kill someone with this ring,” then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin – not unlike the decaying Mafia itself – isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held – for reasons that boggle the mind – in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30bn from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50bn, more than four times the original estimate. That $50bn price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre-global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism … have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games … The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30bn is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has 49 homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.