Russia's leader, eager to burnish his legacy and boost the country's global standing, has risked a lot of prestige in staging the most expensive Olympics in history.
Alexei Nikolskiy, Ria Novosti, Kremlin/REUTERS
Vladimir Putin was at the height of his powers, and his popularity, when he boarded his presidential plane to travel to Guatemala City on a July day almost seven years ago. He was bringing a carefully prepared pitch to put to a skeptical International Olympic Committee. It bespoke a key personal dream of his and a goal he hoped would secure his legacy and elevate Russia once again to a major world power.
Speaking in English, a language he'd been secretly studying, he pledged to transform the sleepy, Soviet-era Black Sea spa town of Sochi into a world-class Olympic venue in time for the winter Games of 2014. He pledged the staggering sum of $12 billion in Kremlin cash to make that happen – a bid that dwarfed the competing cities of Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria. When Sochi won, Mr. Putin was ebullient.
"This is ... not just a recognition of Russia's sporting achievements but it is, beyond any doubt, a judgment on our country," he said. "It is a recognition of our growing capability, first of all economically and socially."
Visitors to Sochi this month will discover that Putin's promises have been spectacularly fulfilled. The city now boasts a gleaming new airport, dozens of ultramodern stadiums and sports facilities, and a state-of-the-art media center. It has free high-speed Wi-Fi everywhere on the Olympic grounds, a new road and rapid-transit rail line hewn from the mountainside to link the subtropical coast with the alpine winter sports cluster, and rows of new luxury hotels.
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