High stakes for Putin at costly Sochi Games
By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Sochi Winter Olympics are meant to be Vladimir Putin's crowning achievement as Russian leader but are in danger of becoming a symbol of his country's problems.
When the Games open with great fanfare on February 7, the president will be there to revel in the unlikely feat of turning an ageing sub-tropical resort on the Black Sea into a glittering modern hub for a Winter Games in seven years.
He hopes the most expensive Games in Olympic history - summer or winter - will validate his role as Russia's supreme leader, unite the country behind him and show how far it has come since Soviet days.
"I would like the participants, fans, journalists and all those who watch the Games on television to see a new Russia, see its face and possibilities, take a fresh and unbiased look at the country," he told foreign and Russian media in Sochi.
But the preparations for the Games have also put the spotlight on Russia's problems, and the negative publicity has often drowned out the positive. Even though the facilities are now ready, his dream could still be shattered and immense damage done to his personal and political standing if they go badly.
For all his assurances that a "ring of steel" around Sochi will make the Games safe, security forces have spent the past week hunting for a woman who is suspected of planning a suicide bombing and may already be in the city.
His attempt to prove Russians are not homophobic by saying they like Elton John fell flat when the gay British singer responded by denouncing a "vicious" law Putin signed last year banning the spread of "homosexual propaganda" among minors.
Tales of corruption, outrage over his friends and allies winning lucrative Olympic building contracts, worries about damage to the environment and reports of migrant construction workers being mistreated must be ringing in Putin's ears. Continued...