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A huge cheer erupted at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia as the performers move into position to form four of the Olympic rings at yesterday’s closing ceremony – a self-deprecating joke at the technical failure that saw just four of the five rings light up at the opening ceremony two weeks ago. Barbara Walton / EPA
A huge cheer erupted at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia as the performers move into position to form four of the Olympic rings at yesterday’s closing ceremony – a self-deprecating joke at the technical failure that saw just four of the five rings light up at the opening ceremony two weeks ago. Barbara Walton / EPA

Fun and games at Sochi 2014, but at what cost?

From spectacular mountain backdrops to horsewhipping militiamen, John Leicester looks at what legacy the most expensive Winter Olympics of all time leaves behind.

For organisation, the Sochi Games deserve a solid seven marks out of 10. Unless, of course, you had to shower in cold, brown water in an unfinished mountain hotel and griped about it to #SochiProblems on Twitter.

For atmosphere and a feel-good factor, anywhere from zero to 10, depending on where you are from and which of the millions of images beamed from Sochi struck you most: glowing Olympians with electric smiles taming ice and snow, going faster, higher and gnarlier; or militiamen horsewhipping and pepper-spraying the women from Pussy Riot, shocking footage the punk band then exploited in their new video.

Many Russians will award high marks, proud of their Olympians’ record haul of medals, of brand new venues and the can-do capacity it took to transform Sochi from a decaying Soviet-era resort to the newest outpost on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) radar. And those visiting from elsewhere, their minds still filled with Soviet-era imagery, found some stereotypes broken and others reinforced as they encountered the country’s first Winter Games.

President Vladimir Putin’s government likes to think the Olympics burnished Russia’s reputation overseas, too. That is why it threw open the public coffers and leaned on oligarchs to finance Putin’s pharaonic winter wonderland in subtropical Russia. One can now swim with dolphins or, as United States skier Julia Mancuso did, surf in the Black Sea in the morning.

They can take a new train or ride the new motorway into the snowy Caucasus Mountains, and ski on manufactured snow for the afternoon.

Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s deputy prime minister, said on Saturday: “Smiley faces, Sochi’s warm sunshine and the glow of the Olympic gold have melted the ice of scepticism about the new Russia. The Games made our country, our culture, our people closer and easier to understand for the whole world,”

The athletes of the Sochi Games were a tapestry of accomplishment with only a few stray threads.

American Sage Kotsenburg got the first gold in Sochi, and pity the translators who had to make sense of his snowboarder’s jargon — including “stoked” and “sick” – in multiple languages.

Shaun White faltered and fell. Tina Maze and Dominique Gisin tied for gold in women’s downhill, a first in 78 years of Olympic Alpine skiing. Overwhelming Dutch dominance in speedskating raised questions about a lack of depth in that sport.

High-adrenalin imports from the X-Games created increasing shade for traditional sports. The US and Russia, playing ice hockey and evoking a fabled 1980 game that was drenched in tense detente, played to an American-won shoot-out before Russia folded and the rivalry fizzled.

The Olympics welcomed women ski jumpers for the first time, not a moment too soon. Adelina Sotnikova gave Russia a gold-medal high and a signature moment for its Games when she beat Kim Yu-na in figure skating, showing in the process that the sport needs to make its opaque and complex judging system more understandable.

A young Russian and her naturalised, American-born husband won snowboarding medals on the same day and grinned together afterward, poster children for a post-Cold War reality.

Russia won 13 golds and 33 medals overall, tops in both categories. But those who were mistrustful of the nation were never going to be seduced by Olympic metals.

After the harassment and detention of gay rights protesters and environmentalists who documented Olympics-related pollution, the IOC leaves Russia facing tough questions about how it selects Olympic hosts: Should human-rights guarantees be a must-have?

The IOC kept insisting that the Games are above politics, despite evidence everywhere to the contrary.

“The Olympic Games are meant to contribute to a peaceful and better world. This goal was not achieved in Sochi,” said Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. “Russia’s repression continued unabated throughout the Games, and the Olympic movement failed to challenge the host country on its pledge to promote human rights.”

Putin seized the Olympic opportunity for some personal rebranding, stroking a Persian leopard at a pre-games photo shoot, dropping in for a spot of sports diplomacy at US Olympic headquarters and turning up at venues.

The weather was perfect – though not necessarily for a Winter Games. Shirtless men soaked in the sun while cross-country Olympians skied past in tank tops.

Security checks were sometimes rigorous, sometimes lax, always ubiquitous – just as one would expect after Islamic rebels further east in the Caucasus claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in December and threatened to target the Games.

“We are very positively surprised,” said Alfons Hoermann, president of Germany’s national sports body. “Even the policemen are extremely friendly.”

Despite the initial negative headlines, the Olympians, those who actually matter to the Games – have raved about the accommodations and facilities, which worked well and looked good on TV.

The spaceship-like ice hockey dome was particularly impressive, its roof lighting up with the flags of teams playing inside and displaying their scores. Shame it did not see a medal for the home nation, with Russia’s men falling to Finland in the quarter-finals.

Yet even with 100,000 daily visitors, Olympic Park rarely seemed to buzz – too much space, not quite enough people.

Critics of Olympic waste and the expense of sporting mega-events will be watching to see whether venues fall into disuse.

Even if they do not, the IOC must ensure that the $51 billion (Dh187.3bn) Russia spent to ready Sochi for the costliest Games in history is the high-water mark of Olympic extravagance, never to be repeated. Pyeongchang should be easier on the conscience, because it has many existing facilities and is budgeting $7bn for infrastructure, including a high-speed rail line from the capital, Seoul.

Still, the basic recipe of the Olympics – take 2,850 rigorously prepared athletes and train high-definition cameras on them – practically guarantees good publicity for the host nation. Russia was no exception.

As Kozak noted: “I haven’t heard a single negative evaluation about our hospitality since the Games in Sochi began.”

sports@thenational.ae

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