Tuesday marks the one-month countdown to the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a defining moment on the world stage for Russia and Vladimir Putin.
These games are among the most contentious in Olympic history, embroiled in controversy over terrorist threats, human rights, gay rights, cost overruns, corruption and environmental damage.
But is it all doom and gloom for Putin’s pet project?
Before the Olympic cauldron is lit on Feb. 7, it’s time for a look at the good and the bad for Russia’s first Winter Games.
TERROR THREAT: The two bombings in Volgograd last week, which killed 34 people in suicide attacks on the rail station and a trolley bus, have escalated the security alarm. Sochi is located on the edge of the Caucasus region, where insurgents are seeking to create an Islamic state. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has urged his fighters to attack the Sochi Olympics. A massive security apparatus will be in place for the games, meaning painstaking metal-detector, X-ray and other checks for athletes, spectators and media. Putin is expected to attend many Olympic events, causing further security lockdowns.
ANTI-GAY LAW: The Russian law banning gay “propaganda” has caused a furious backlash in the West and tarnished the country’s international reputation heading into the Olympics. While Russia has promised there will be no discrimination at the games, critics continue to bash the law. The IOC has been assailed for not pushing Russia to repeal the legislation.
RECORD COST: $51 billion. That’s the overall price tag for the games, by far the most expensive in history, summer or winter, and more than three times the budget of the 2012 London Games.
So what’s the good news then?
Here’s a sampling:
NEW SPORTS: Twelve new events are on the sports program in Sochi, with women’s ski jumping perhaps the best attraction. Female jumpers are making their debut after being rejected for inclusion in Vancouver four years ago. In a nod to the young X Games generation, the IOC has also added ski halfpipe and ski and snowboard slopestyle events. Snowboard star Shaun White, aka the Flying Tomato, will unveil a new trick – a frontside double-cork 1440.
HOCKEY FEVER: The NHL players are back. Hockey is the sport Russia really cares about, and the host nation will be out to make amends after the disaster in Vancouver. The Russians failed to medal in hockey, knocked out in the quarterfinals by Canada. It was symbolic of Russia’s worst overall showing at a Winter Games, winning 15 medals and finishing 11th in the standings. Sochi will offer a chance of redemption for superstar Alex Ovechkin, who is desperate to lead Russia to its first Olympic title since a “Unified Team” of former Soviet republics took gold in 1992.
SKI STARS: Alpine skiing features the anticipated returns of American stars Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller from knee injuries, though Vonn’s status remains uncertain.
THE VENUES: They’re brand new, they’re ready and they’ll look great on TV. Gleaming arenas are in place for hockey, curling, speedskating and figure skating.
THE STAKES: National pride and Putin’s personal prestige are on the line. There’s simply too much at play for Russia not to make the games a success.