Playing into Putin's hands

Guardians of next year's Winter Olympics and 2018 World Cup will make billions but at what cost to the common man in Russia?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 August, 2013, 1:58am

If you made a list of people who you don't want to mess with, not even Tony Soprano in his mob-boss prime would top Vladimir Putin. Unrepentant and remorseless, Russia's stoic leader just oozes menace. It has served him well because you cannot become what Putin has without being ruthless and, more importantly, extremely cunning and shrewd. Putin is a master of manipulation and obfuscation and his latest public salvo is clear proof.

In June, Putin signed off on a bill that basically makes it a crime to be gay. Public displays by same-sex couples are now illegal and serious punishment will be handed out to people "who provide information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors or hold gay pride rallies". There is, however, one large litmus test for this draconian law and that is the Winter Olympics in Sochi that will bring the world and the world's media to Russia in February. Privately, the International Olympic Committee said it had received assurances that the law would not affect athletes and people attending the Games. Privately.

"An athlete of non-traditional sexual orientation isn't banned from coming to Sochi," Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said last week. "But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandise, then of course he will be held accountable." Naturally, this has energised gay rights activists globally, many of whom are eager to go to Russia to expose what they see as a fascist affront to their liberated existence. Some are calling on the supposedly more enlightened countries like the US to boycott the Games, while others are hoping they can be moved. And this is all exactly what Putin wants.

Let's not pretend that bringing politics into the Olympics is unseemly or inappropriate because while athletic competition ideally should be the core tenet of the Games, national interests traditionally supersede it. There are few things more blatantly political than hosting an Olympic Games, a massive propaganda tool. But in reality, the political implications may be the greatest thing about this gathering. Putin is shameless; he can't be embarrassed. However, Russians can and many see that efforts to radically transform and modernise their country into a thriving democracy have failed miserably under Putin, who now seems to be governing by royal decree and who conveniently restructured the country's fledgling constitution so he could run for a third term as president.

Affluence in some sectors has greatly increased, but many gains have been largely dwarfed by one of the most blatantly corrupt and oppressive governments in the world. More than US$50 billion of public money has been spent to host these Winter Olympics and pretty much every cent went into the pockets of Putin's cronies. Russia is in the midst of one of the most lucrative kleptocratic heists in the history of mankind with no sign of it ending. Gay rights are sadly just window dressing. Putin knows how divisive an issue it is and right now he wants you to focus on his chauvinism.

The spineless squids who run the IOC cower in his wake, safe in the knowledge the lucrative TV money is already in their pocket

The activists who are calling for a boycott or asking that the Games be moved are beyond deluded. It ain't happening. They are by far the most expensive Olympics ever, with every single facility and every facet of the transportation logistics being built from scratch. There is no way the IOC would revoke such a grandiose undertaking and Putin knows that all too well. The spineless squids who run the IOC cower in his wake, safe in the knowledge the lucrative TV money is already in their pocket. There will be the obligatory press release about the inclusive nature of the Games and fostering global togetherness. But it will be merely words and in 2018 when the World Cup comes to Russia, Fifa will be even more shameless in indulging this charade of enlightenment. They know all too well they are merely guests and in Russia it's nothing personal, it's just business.

Some financial analysts and international criminologists estimate Putin's fortune to be in excess of US$40 billion. But the media and the international trendies who come to Sochi won't necessarily be focusing on Putin as one of the world's richest men when he officially opens the Winter Olympics next year. They will, however, be falling over themselves to paint him as the world's most macho man. He can gladly live with that.