MOSCOW (AP) — For Vladimir Putin, the Winter Olympics he brought to Sochi have always been about far more than sports.
The benefits the Russian president expects from holding the games range from improving Russia's international standing and instilling a sense of national pride to turning around the country's demographic decline. And of course Putin wants to be seen, at home and abroad, as the man who made this all possible.
That's a tall order for an international sports event.
And what if terrorists strike the Olympics, which are taking place Feb. 7-23 just a few hundred miles (kilometers) west of a region where Islamic insurgents carry out bombings and other attacks almost daily? Or if a winter storm rips through the Black Sea resort, knocking out its hastily finished electric grid? Or even if Russian athletes in Sochi repeat their dismal performance of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games?
If — for one reason or another — Sochi is deemed to be a disaster, the $51 billion spent on Putin's games may suddenly seem like a colossal waste of money. That amount dwarfs the spending of any other Olympics, winter or summer.
"Has Putin over-invested in these games?" Stephen Sestanovich, a Columbia University professor and Russia scholar, asked rhetorically. "Almost surely. And I think the disproportion of the investment will be clearer if the Russians don't bring home a trove of gold medals and if the security situation goes badly."
Putin has made the 2014 Winter Games his personal project from the very beginning, directing an ambitious undertaking to transform Sochi, a once-tacky Soviet-era summer resort, into a world-class winter sports center.
Along the way, the games took on a state propaganda aspect that one of Putin's former advisers says has not been seen since the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, which the Nazis used to promote their concept of racial supremacy.