The eyes of the world turn today to Sochi, Russia, and the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Many of those watching as the spectacle unfolds will harbor the same hope: that when the cauldron bearing the Olympic flame is lit, it doesn’t blow up.
Such is the sad state of the scariest and most dispiriting run-up to an Olympic Games in history. Most of the blame goes to the specter of terrorism. Fears spiked after Islamic separatist suicide bombers struck twice in Volgograd in December, killing 34 people.
The U.S. government told airlines flying into Russia that terrorists might hide explosives in toothpaste tubes, then banned liquids and gels on those flights. The Russians are hunting “black widows” — potential suicide bombers from Chechnya. Athletes are telling families to stay home, with thousands of Russian security forces on the ground, helicopters overhead, and U.S. warships off the coast.
Fueling the fear is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal battle with Muslim separatists and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, allegedly carried out by brothers born in Chechnya. There’s also the Olympics’ own history — which includes Palestinian commando killers in Munich in 1972 and the bomb in Atlanta in 1996.
Ever-tighter security is the new normal. And that’s sad: The Olympic rings have given way to the ring of steel.
Sochi has been beset by other problems as well. The record cost, an obscene $51 billion, includes accusations of massive kickbacks to Putin and cronies. Reports abound of undrinkable water, unreliable electricity and unfinished hotel rooms. Stray dogs are being rounded up and shot as Putin tries to show Russia is a well-governed country, and worldwide protests continue over its anti-gay laws.
Lost are the athletes, the reason for this celebration. The moment should belong to competitors, such as New York Rangers Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan, skating for the U.S. hockey team. It is often said the Olympic Games bring the world together, but Sochi so far has united us in fear. We hope the games can ultimately work their magic. And we’ll be hoping the joy kicks in.