Games hold echoes of 1980 Moscow Olympics
By STEVEN R. HURST
the associated press | February 07,2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the International Olympic Committee President’s Gala Dinner, Thursday, in Sochi, Russia.
SOCHI, Russia — In the summer of 1980, a group of journalists asked a Soviet official what the Soviet Union had contributed to the 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 — the largely mountainous deep south of the country between the Black and Caspian seas.
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. Cold and rainy, the Russians call it “horseradish weather.” It rained nearly daily right up to the opening ceremony, when the clouds parted for the sun. It shone down on Lenin Stadium for the rest of the games. Some speculated the Soviets were seeding the clouds in the far west of the country to empty them before they reached Moscow.
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 Soviet ruble had no value outside the country.
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 United States 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 closed 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.