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Money loses all meaning in a monument to vanity


Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

It was just as well perhaps that only the snowflake malfunctioned and not any of the actors and dancers on parade.

And even at that, someone somewhere might well be ordered to atone for the failure of a piece of equipment in front of the fearsome leader. The world was watching and Vladimir Putin was in the house. No public embarrassment could be permitted beneath his narrow-eyed glare.

The Winter Olympics had been bought and paid for to consummate his stature on the global stage; it would glorify him, and by extension Russia, because they are one and the same; it would be inseparable from his vanity and greatness. Therefore the opening ceremony in the glittering stadium simply had to be a triumph.

But Putin's domestic omnipotence could not control the international narrative that had emerged long before athletes and media descended on Sochi. The Games had unhinged his ambitions and insecurities. No obstacle, natural or financial, could get in the way. The result was an orgy of spending, an extravaganza of waste and corruption and environmental vandalism.

It began with the decision to host the Games, not in some part of the Siberian north, but in a town on the Black Sea where the climate is mild and sub-tropical.

The final budget is estimated at $51 billion. But the real figure is anyone's guess, given the Government's aversion to transparency and accountability. The Beijing Games in 2008 was the previous most expensive, supposedly costing $40 billion. But winter Olympiads are much smaller in scale than their summer counterparts and Russia's original budget was set at $12 billion when they campaigned for the Games in 2007. Even this sum was enough to swamp rival bids at the time.

A 31-mile infrastructural project linking Sochi with the skiing resort of Krasnaya Polyana has come to symbolise the financial and psychological mania behind the entire enterprise. Krasnaya Polyana will host the mountain events. This road and rail project alone cost an estimated $8.7 billion, more than the total budget for the Vancouver Games in 2010. The main contracts here went to two companies. The contracts were awarded without a public tender. Senior directors at the companies are said to be cross-connected within the web of the president's allies and associates.

Another $7 billion in projects was awarded to two brothers, now super-rich industrialists, who were childhood friends of Putin's.

It seems that anyone who could jump on the gravy train, did. Money, that most meaningful of commodities, lost all meaning. The state was more or less printing it for Sochi 2014. Contractors big and small thought of a price and trebled it.

New roads that had just been built were ripped up and built again. Geological problems presented massive engineering challenges. The ski jump, originally budgeted at $40m, ended up costing $265m. A landslide in the middle of construction shifted millions of tons of soil. Floods and storms destroyed half-built infrastructure plus machinery and materials worth multiple millions.

Various apparatchiks were fired when it was politically convenient, and investigated for embezzlement and fraud. All the time, money was being squandered in a blizzard of noughts.

And all the time, despite the chaos, arenas of architectural splendour were reaching completion. In one such, the Fisht Olympic Stadium, preparations for the opening ceremony were fraught. The final few weeks could only have been a frenzy of stress and pressure for everyone involved. The producer of the ceremony, Konstantin Ernst, if he's a drinker at all, presumably kept the vodka close at hand. He'd needed five months, he said, to rehearse fully the event in all its human and technological complexity. But he only had one month because the stadium wasn't ready.

But on Friday night it somehow all came together. The ceremony was a showcase for the giants of Russian arts, from ballet to music and literature. Some of the sequences were fabulous in beauty and scale. The artists and performers had defied the goons all around them. They finally brought some dignity and class to this otherwise squalid folly.

It surely wasn't their fault that a cock-up materialised on the night. The gargantuan levels of greed and incompetence couldn't be entirely concealed beneath the mountains of cash. The debilitating mediocrity at the heart of every authoritarian regime can always be relied upon to spoil the illusion, somewhere along the line. It cannot ever be fully airbrushed away.

And so the snowflake failed to perform. There were five of them dangling from the roof, giant electronic designs in neon white that were supposed to morph into the five rings of the Olympic symbol. Four of them did so; the fifth remained stubbornly a snowflake. Putin's face, according to reports, was a rictus of tension as it hung there, for all the world to see.

But if there was a metaphor to be found in the malfunction, it might be located in the fetid boardroom of the International Olympic Committee. Once again they'd allowed sport to be hijacked by a brutish Government while they counted the money that was badly needed by impoverished citizens of the host nation.

One ring short on the night, a wheel had fallen off their tinpot chariot too.


Irish Independent