Olympic torch fires up Sochi controversy

After being plunged to the bottom of the world's deepest lake and hauled to the top of Europe's highest mountain, the Olympic torch finally arrived in Sochi on Wednesday evening, as it completed a gargantuan relay designed – like everything else about the Winter Olympics – to showcase Russia's greatness to the world.

In this case it was the country's vastness that was flaunted, as the torch travelled across multiple time zones, across steppe and mountains, tundra and taiga, through huge cities and remote hamlets. As well as reaching the bed of Lake Baikal and the peak of Mount Elbrus, the torch even went all the way to the International Space Station after blasting off from Russia's launchpad at Baikonur, lest we forget that Russia is the only country in the world that has such capacity for now.

A day before the flame's arrival on the Black Sea coast in time for Friday's opening ceremony, it was preceded in Sochi by the man who sent it on its way at a lavish ceremony in Red Square in October, President Vladimir Putin.

Then, Putin told the world that the torch relay would "show the world Russia as she is and as we love her". But as the torch meandered its way through the endlessness of Russia, Putin's claim that it would show the real Russia came true in ways he might not have anticipated.

In the northern port city of Murmansk, the torch was carried through the streets while Greenpeace activists who had protested against Arctic drilling languished in a crumbling prison a few blocks away. In Voronezh, a gay rights protester who attempted to wave a rainbow flag as the torch came past was wrestled away by police and detained.

Danger route
In the restive province of Dagestan, the main source of the terrorist threat that overshadows the Games, the route had to be curtailed at the last minute because of security fears, and in Volgograd the torch was run down streets where, weeks before, crisis had struck with a pair of suicide bombings on public transport.

There, at least, the arrival of the torch brought a welcome dose of joy to a city in mourning. 

Elsewhere there was genuine excitement at the arrival of the torch, though along much of the route it was far too cold for anyone to be outside celebrating for long.

The relay has thrown up some stories that highlight Russia's glorious quirkiness, such as the 101-year-old Siberian who was so proud of the opportunity that he spent weeks training for his chance to hold the torch by shuffling through his apartment and courtyard holding aloft a giant, torch-shaped frozen fish.

Even some of the disasters had their upside, showing the resilience and knack for improvisation that is such a characteristic of Russia. When the torch's flame was put out by a rogue gust of wind moments after leaving the Kremlin walls, instead of the panicking and despondency that might have greeted such a mishap anywhere else, the torchbearer simply asked a bystander for a light. A lighter was duly produced, the Olympic torch relit with all the nonchalance of a Marlboro Light, and the runner was back on his way in seconds.

Nevertheless, the torch kept on extinguishing itself, causing those angry at the pomp and corruption around the Olympics to giggle and make jokes about the symbolism.

In the Siberian city of Abakan, one of the torchbearers inadvertently set himself on fire when drops of liquid gas fell on to his jacket, though he was not injured.

A 73-year-old man died of a heart attack shortly after carrying the torch in the city of Kurgan, prompting noir humourists to note that the torch relay was now responsible for more victims than the huge anti-government protests in neighbouring Ukraine (the events in Kiev later caught up and overtook the fatality toll).

As the torch has neared the end of its journey, the controversy has not retreated.

On Monday, several environmental activists who have investigated alleged abuses and corruption surrounding the Games were detained before the torch rally passed through Krasnodar. One of them could face a three-year jail sentence on what critics say are trumped-up charges related to his unwelcome digging into the construction of elite mansions in the Sochi area and environmental damage.

Parallel world
Putin's Olympics take place in something of a parallel world, however. In recent weeks he has denied that there is any discrimination against gay people in Russia, and insisted there was no corruption in the preparations for the Games. On Tuesday he said it was an "undoubted fact" that the environment had been "improved many times over" because of the Winter Olympics.

The president's first day in Sochi, the beginning of a trip that he hopes will mark the pinnacle of his time in charge of Russia, was classic Putin. He paid a visit to a leopard sanctuary, posing for the cameras with one of the big cats and pacifying it with gentle strokes, moments after it had angrily gnashed its teeth on the leg of a journalist.

After the petting session, Putin spoke of his excitement about the upcoming Games, but affected modesty when it came to the question of who would be the person to light the flame inside the main stadium during Friday's curtain-raiser. 

"We have a lot of top athletes in winter sports," said Putin. "I am not a professional; I am just an amateur."

But even if he does not take part in the ceremony – which is rumoured to involve pyrotechnics, huge set pieces and a lavishly choreographed journey through Russian history – Putin is unlikely to be away from the centre stage for long during the next two weeks. After all, the development of Sochi has been a dream of his since the early days of his first presidency, in 2001, he admitted in a recent interview. These are Putin's Games.— © Guardian News & Media 2014

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