As world athletes gear up for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived on the spot a full three days before the opening ceremony on Friday.
Mr. Putin personally drove members of the International Olympic Committee to a breeding centre for red-book Persian leopards, posed for a photo op with Russian sportsmen and showcased the brand-new games venues to reporters.
The Russian leader apparently felt the need to do some PR to offset a highly negative image of the Games painted in Western and some Russian media. Critics said Sochi was the wrong choice for Winter Olympics as it sits next door to the terror-infested Caucasus, and has “unsuitable subtropical climate,” being “one of the few places in Russia where you might not find snow.”
A campaign to boycott the Sochi Olympics was unleashed in the West after Russia passed a law banning “homosexual propaganda among minors” last year.
Media decried the staggering price tag of $51 billion for the Sochi Games, with kickbacks accounting for the better half of the budget. This made Sochi not only the most expensive Olympics in history, but also costlier than all previous Winter Olympiads put together.
Russia was accused of undertaking a massive construction programme for the Olympics without essential research into the region’s landslide-prone geology and pristine and fragile ecology. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned three years ago that “vast damage to the environment has already been done.”
Mr. Putin was branded a “megalomaniac” with “Peter the Great complex” emulating the tsar who built his capital on a swamp.
Fending off the attacks, Mr. Putin told reporters that the environmental situation in Sochi had in fact improved “up to four times over,” thanks to the Games according to some estimates.
He argued that the $51 billion price tag was misleading, as the Olympics venues cost only $6 billion and the balance spent on building infrastructure that the government had planned to build anyway.
The Sochi Olympiad “is the world’s largest construction project,” Mr. Putin proudly declared.
All venues and infrastructure in Sochi has been built from scratch. Now that Sochi has more hotel rooms than Moscow, authorities hope it will become a world-class all-season tourist resort.
An anti-Sochi campaign has taken its toll. Some prominent Western leaders will be noticeably absent at the Olympics, including U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.
However, the “diplomatic quasi-boycott,” as a leading Russian analyst called it, will only give more prominence to China's leader Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will be present at the opening ceremony along with 40 other heads of state and government.
As for those Western leaders who stayed away, “they will not be able to escape Putin's hospitality in Sochi: four months after the Olympics kick-off, the Russian president will be hosting the G8 summit there,” said foreign policy expert Dmitry Trenin.