The Emperor Has No Shirt

The Sochi Olympics as international spectacle are supposed to be Vladimir Putin’s gold-medal display of the new Russia. A Russia that’s relevant within the superpower club and a Russia that’s brimming with optimism.

Certainly the Olympics opening ceremony was an effective mashup of technology, pageantry, and artistry, if a little short on troublesome history. And so far, the competition is proceeding without any visible signs of portended violence or terrorism.

Putin has spared no expense in converting a sleepy, semi-tropical corner of the country into a winter wonderland. So it’s understandable that many of the stories gaining traction (in Western media, anyway) are less about the thrill of Putin’s victory and more about the agony of multiple defeats. For instance:

  • The mass killing of stray dogs in the run up to the Opening Ceremonies
  • Photo-tweets about Sochi hotels with non-functioning toilets or tap water the color of Bud Light
  • Time magazine wondering if this is the worst Olympics destination ever
  • The reputed $68.14 billion price tag – a sum that exceeds the Gross Domestic Product of the world’s top 50 countries (plus Hong Kong)

Russians are not particularly wealthy. The country is number eight on the GDP list, barely ahead of Italy, and its 143 million people are spread across nine time zones and 6.6 million square miles – figures that make it hard to distribute what wealth is left after the oligarchs’ vigorish.

Russia’s dismal humans rights record is famously inhospitable to legitimate dissenters, ethnic minorities, gays, and even certain female rock bands.

Yet, its oft-mocked shirtless leader happily believes that his new suit of clothes, not to mention his autocratic, corrupt, and intolerant government is invisible to those who are his lessers.

Yes, components of the Sochi Olympics are genuine: the talented athletes, the compelling competitions, and the architecturally inspirational venues. But any golden glow from these games will not hide the naked ambition of Vladimir Putin to produce his vanity project at the expense of Russian taxpayers while violating their basic human rights.

President Putin, if you’re going to market your country as a forward-thinking, dynamic, world power, we would offer you some advice:

  1. At the very least, stop over-promising, under-delivering, and treating your country’s coffers as your own private slush fund.
  2. Put on a shirt.


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