SOCHI, RUSSIA – In the summer of 1980, a group of journalists asked a Soviet official what the USSR had contributed to building of Moscow’s new West German-constructed Sheremetyevo Airport, which would deliver visitors to the Summer Olympics.
“Sand,” he said.
The tour came shortly before the opening of the Moscow Olympics, the first for a communist capital. President Leonid Brezhnev wanted the games to legitimize the Soviet system, a military superpower and economic basket case.
Thirty-four years later, President Vladimir Putin has similar ambitions: Proving to the world through the 2014 Sochi Games that post-Soviet Russia remains a global player, if no longer a superpower.
The answer about sand was a public admission that the nation’s manufacturing and construction were too shoddy to put up a terminal that would become visitors’ first impression of Moscow.
Russians have contributed much more than sand to the 2014 Olympics. Russian businesses, many owned by Putin’s allies, built new stadiums, hotels, roads and a ski resort in the mountains.
Long gone is the Cold War that pitted the U.S. vs. the Soviet Union in 1980. So is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that prompted President Jimmy Carter to lead dozens of countries to boycott the Olympics.
But Putin finds himself snarled in other problems: his country’s intolerance of homosexuality, complaints from human rights activists over his crackdown on dissent, and serious security concerns about threats from Islamic insurgents battling Russian rule in the Caucasus.
In 1980, Moscow and the rest of the Soviet Union were isolated from much of the world. Virtually every Muscovite would shun domestic goods. Long lines snaked down the street when word spread that a shop had a delivery of Hungarian shoes.The main highway to the Moscow airport had been lined with old dachas, the charming but ramshackle Hansel-and-Gretel log homes of rural Russia. Those homes disappeared almost overnight before the 1980 Games.
The weather had been bad that spring and summer. It rained nearly daily right up to the opening ceremony, when the clouds parted for the sun.
But political clouds lingered. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before. Carter declared a boycott and dozens of U.S. allies joined.
It was a crushing blow to Soviet pride. Estimates claimed nearly a third of expected foreign visitors stayed away, denying the struggling economy desperately needed hard currency.
The political scar lasted well beyond the boycott. Dissidents were rounded up to keep them silent. First among them was Nobel laureate and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov. The KGB snatched him from his Moscow apartment early in 1980 and dispatched him to the closed Soviet city of Gorki.
Zbigniew Brzezinksi, who was Carter’s national security adviser, does not second-guess the boycott. “It was certainly the right thing to do as a sense of conveying to Moscow that it was isolated internationally and this was not a smart thing to do,” Brzezinski said in a recent interview.
The Sochi Games take place as the U.S. is withdrawing its own forces from Afghanistan, ending a 12-year war there. The Soviets left after 10 years in 1989.
Moscow became a different city for the 1980 Olympics. Streets were paved, buildings were painted and shops were stocked with goods not seen for years. International newspapers showed up in news kiosks and at hotels. Even movie theaters offered “translated” versions of Russian films: A language student speaking English into a microphone in the back of the theater, with the same monotone for all characters.
The Russians are flying a bit higher these days. Preparations for Sochi, in what had been a playground for Soviet bosses in 1980, were a personal project of Putin.
Instead of a boycott, the Sochi Olympics are dealing with the threat of terrorism, which is likely to keep down foreign attendance.
The reasons go back more than 150 years when Russia expanded into the Caucasus, lands long ruled by the dozens of ethnic groups, many of them Muslims. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a guerrilla insurgency began fighting against Russian rule.
The threats to Sochi are being taken seriously. Insurgents already have carried out deadly bombings in southern Russia.
Not to worry, says Sochi Olympics chief Dmitry Chernyshenko. He said Sochi was the “most secure venue at the moment on the planet” and promised that tight security measures will not detract from the atmosphere of the games.
Terrorist concerns are not new. At the 1980 Moscow Games, security was nearly overwhelming. The Kremlin and the whole world well remembered what had happened in Munich eight years earlier, when Palestinian terrorists from Black September killed six Israeli Olympic coaches, five Israeli athletes and a West German policeman.
The Moscow Olympics escaped violence, but the boycott hurt the games, and they failed to legitimize or improve the image of the Soviet government, which fell 11 years later. Putin is counting on a better result.