MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as an athlete, whether he's skiing, playing hockey, throwing judo opponents or riding bare-chested on horseback. Russia's iron-pumping, iron-fisted president views the Sochi Olympics as another contest to be won — but with much more at stake than gold medals.
Seven years after Putin personally campaigned for the 2014 Olympics to be held at his favorite Black Sea summer retreat and mountain winter playground, his name has been attached to Russia's first try as a Winter Olympics host. They are known as "Putin's Games."
Putin's goal was to consolidate his power by elevating his country's stature, but even before the cauldron has been lit, he has taken a beating.
Putin deployed 60,000 security personnel to Sochi to prevent a terrorist attack from North Caucasus militants who have vowed to embarrass him. Repression of environmental and gay-rights activists has critics saying he is reprising his role as KGB chief. His $51 billion Games will cost four times more than predicted, busting the Olympic record amid accusations of kickbacks to his oligarch cronies.
"These Games are Putin's pet project so he can look like a macho guy in total control," opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said this week. "But so far, all the problems with his regime have been concentrated in Sochi."
Just outside the Kremlin's walls, a giant clock counts down the time until Friday's Opening Ceremonies. Muscovites bundled in fur coats and ushankas hustle past, too busy keeping up with the cost of living in this expensive capital to notice that the digital numbers on one side don't match those on the other. Putin enjoys high approval ratings, especially in rural parts of the world's largest country. Yet, Russians seem well aware of the propaganda value of a successful Olympics.
"I believe many people outside Russia still see it as a country of bears, drunks and dictators," said Anna Vereschagina, a student. "The Olympics can help to change those thoughts."
Putin, however, has reinforced stereotypes of the old Russia while leading the new Russia for the past 14 years. His recent release of political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two members of the Pussy Riot rock band did not disguise his government's crackdown on media, detention of environmentalists in Sochi or support of antigay legislation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch.
"The image of strongman and protector has been Putin's hallmark, and Russians respond well to that because they are quite patriotic," said Indiana University political science professor Dina Spechler. "Democracy is an alien system in Russia. People want law and order. They've seen the Color Revolutions. They understand the centrifugal tendencies of a huge realm that could become ungovernable and has descended into anarchy in the past."
The biggest risk Putin faces is tragedy at the Games perpetrated by jihadists from the Caucasus Emirate group. Hatred of Russia dates back centuries. Dagestan is now the center of unrest. Security forces are hunting suspected "Black Widow" suicide bombers and other extremists who may have infiltrated Sochi's "Ring of Steel" months ago.
Putin also faces discontent in Moscow, where another protest was held Saturday, with Nemtsov's demonstrators holding up signs that said "Free political prisoners; jail Olympic thieves."
Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, estimates the cost of Olympic embezzlement at $26 billion. At his Republican Party headquarters, Nemtsov showed graphs comparing the cost per stadium seat of various Olympics. Sochi, at $19,000, dwarfs the cost of Vancouver ($7,000) and Turin ($10,800). Sochi's total cost is $11 billion higher than the Beijing Summer Games, which were much larger.
"It's a festival of corruption," Nemtsov said. "It's crony capitalism at its best."