Aaron Schachter: The opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics is just two weeks away now, and despite cost overruns and terrorist threats, it actually seems everything will be ready to go. And that is in large part thanks to President Vladimir Putin. Some are already calling these Olympics the "Putin Games". Fred Weir is Moscow correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor. He says the Russian leader has been heavily involved since the very beginning.
Fred Weir: He went to Guatemala City where the IOC was meeting. He made a passionate pitch to them in English - a language he had been secretly studying just for that purpose. He bid twelve billion dollars at the time that he would invest in the Olympics, which just was so much more than the competition was offering. He put his name and fingerprints all over it from the very inception of the Sochi Games.
Schachter: And how involved has he been since? He was pitch-man, but what else is he doing?
Weir: OK. He was pitch-man, but since the costs have ballooned from the original twelve billion to well fifty billion now, it's clear that someone at the highest level of authority has been signing of on these cost overruns. It can only basically have been Putin. He's been front and center whenever the Games have come up. He's made it really clear that he sees the Sochi Games as his project and, to a great extent, his legacy as leader of Russia. This is one of his signature achievements.
Schachter: And what does his handling of the Olympics tell us about Russia these days?
Weir: Well, the fact that one person can put his mark on it to this extent tells you that this is still very much a one-man-ruled state. It also tells you a great deal about Putin's own strategy which is to use big high-profile events like the Olympics to drive Russia's development, to change the world's image of Russia. He's put a lot of money and Russian resources into it, but this is all part of a grand scheme of his to bring Russia back on the world stage as a major player and a country to be respected.
Schachter: Do we know Russia is getting this fifty plus billion dollars from, considering, as you said, the economy is not what it was seven years ago?
Weir: This is true. These are the most expensive Olympics ever staged by far.
Schachter: Winter or summer.
Weir: Winter or summer. I mean a lot of that, apparently as much as a third of that, has been siphoned off in craft and corruption. But the oil boom that Russia did experience left it with a whacking great surplus. Russia has in its foreign reserves almost half a trillion dollars. It's not a poor country. It can afford this. But there are long-term problems on the horizon, that the economy is slowing down and they may come to miss that fifty billion dollars that they spent on Sochi after some time, but right now it's not a crisis at all.
Schachter: And finally, Fred, how important do you think the Olympics are to Russia more broadly? We've spoken about how they're Putin's Games, but to Russia as a whole how important are they?
Weir: Well, Russia is a sport-loving country and the fact of the Olympics being held is a prestige thing. Opinion polls do show that quite a sizable majority of Russians are proud that their country is hosting the Olympics. I don't think you can take that away from them. And it also should probably be said that despite all the corruption and all the other problems, Sochi is ready. It is amazing. All the facilities are gleaming new and cutting edge technology. It is, by the accounts of everybody who come back from there, really impressive.
Schachter: Fred Weir is Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Fred, appreciate your time. Thank you.
Weir: Thank you.
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