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The games

Feb 6, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

The Winter Olympics seem less about sports than ever

In Wyoming, we can identify with the Winter Olympics in a way that a lot of the nation can't. Snow and ice we understand. We know frost on our eyebrows and seeing our breath.

We don't have curling here, but we know we'd like it. We haven't done a lot of steeple-chasing, synchronized swimming, or three-meter platform diving in Wyoming. But sledding? That we get.

This year, however, the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, seem less about sports than ever. This year, it mostly seems to be about bomb threats, security guards, metal detectors and attack dogs.

The Olympics lost their innocence a long time ago. Think Hitler's Berlin, the Mexico City protests, the Munich terrorism, the Moscow boycott and Atlanta bombing, and the Salt Lake City corruption. But those games also had Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Sebastian Coe, Michael Johnson and Sarah Hughes.

These games have Vladimir Putin.

So domineering has the Russian president been, so central to every discussion, every interview, every bit of preparation, that the sports and their competitors have been all but overshadowed.

On Wednesday, when American snowboarding king Shaun White announced that he wouldn't compete in the new slope-style boarding event to concentrate on his specialty, the half pipe, instead, it was easy to imagine people all over the country thinking "Oh, yeah -- there are athletes and competitions in Sochi, not just the preening, chest-puffing president."

Are Putin's constant references to terrorist threats the real thing or just manufactured bluster intended to make him look good after the fact if nothing bad happens? It's an unpleasant question, but Putin's behavior begs it to be asked. There have been some terrorist incidents in the general vicinity of Sochi in recent weeks, and the chatter about violent disruption at the games is non-stop.

In that vein, here's another question begging an answer. Why were the Olympics awarded to Putin in the first place? By all accounts, Sochi itself is a bizarre site for the winter games, rather like awarding them to Santa Barbara, Calif., and then staging the actual cold-weather events in Idaho (some of the venues are 600 miles from beachfront Sochi). Further, some competition sites are still under construction even as the games begin, to say nothing of the soon-to-be legendary accounts of poor sanitations services, contaminated water, and power outages in the hotels and Olympic village.

Beyond the incongruity of having the Winter Olympics in a place where the snow has been brought in on trucks, and setting aside the clear lack of readiness in key areas of modern Olympic preparation, the uneasiness about security raises the issue of whether the traditional practice of bidding out the Olympics ought to be continued. (Analysts say the problems of Sochi might well pale next to those of the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.)

Perhaps a rotating group of Olympic sites could be considered if the bidding process loses what is left of its integrity, or if a satisfactory city couldn't be found. The Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Barcelona, Sydney and London are well-regarded by history. Could a slate of semi-permanent Olympic venues be established in places such as these which demonstrated they could handle the job? Likewise, Vancouver, Calgary, Lake Placid, Sapporo and Innsbruck showed the world how it's done in the winter time (poor Sarajevo, site of the 1984 winter games, was bombed into near ruin by the war there just a few years later).

Everyone wishes, of course, that two weeks from now the majesty of the Olympics, the excitement of the contests, and the personalities of the soon-to-be star athletes will have reclaimed the spotlight from the men with guns and the former KGB agent who runs Russia.

Let's hope so. It can't happen a moment too soon.

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