High stakes for Putin as his Olympic dream nears

High stakes for Putin as his Olympic dream nears

SOCHI/MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his personal and political prestige on February's Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi, yet despite the $50-billion price tag the Games could still be an embarrassing flop.

If all goes to plan, the costliest Games in history will be a showcase for Russia's achievements under Putin, the vindication of a six-year vanity project on a truly Soviet scale.

But his dream could yet be shattered: if venues on the subtropical Black Sea are not ready on time; if protests break out over a new Russian law that critics say targets gay rights; if Chechen or other Islamist militants attack the Games.

Four months before the Games open on Feb. 7, cranes still tower over muddy construction sites, freshly laid pipes lie exposed to the weather and walkways are churned up around them. At ski resorts above the seaside city, huge segments of metal piping and cable lie strewn around near hotels.

The blow to Putin's pride and political standing would be immense if the Games fail because he has invested so much personally in what some see as the folly of turning a palm-lined summer beach resort into a 21st-century winter sports hub.

"He considers this project his baby," said Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee.

Of all the projects Putin has undertaken since he was first elected president in 2000, few have borne his personal stamp so clearly. He flew in person to Guatemala in 2007 to persuade Olympic chiefs to award the Games to Sochi. He even addressed them in French and English, a rarity for the former KGB spy.

Some Russian organising officials call Putin team "captain". He seems to have revelled in the difficulties, building venues from scratch, persuading wealthy tycoons to fund construction and coping with floods and mudslides around Sochi last month.

When the ski-jump venue fell behind schedule, Putin not only fired a senior official but went on television with him to humiliate the unfortunate bureaucrat publicly.

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