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'Putin's Games' could still be compliment or curse

Sunday - 1/5/2014, 6:06am  ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin skies at the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

AP Sports Writer

After a journey of joy across nine time zones and into space, the Olympic torch relay is approaching something the Winter Games' organizers and Russia's leaders didn't plan for and certainly didn't want: A city in mourning.

The Russian city of Volgograd is burying its dead this week -- 34 victims of twin suicide bombings that went off just 400 miles (640 kilometers) from where the Sochi Games will be held. And in less than three weeks, the Olympic torch reaches Volgograd, stop 117 on an epic route toward the Olympics' opening ceremony.

These Olympics are being dubbed "Putin's Games." For Russia's top man, eager to impress the world and show he can pull off a major multinational event safely and successfully, that moniker could turn out to be a compliment or a curse.

President Vladimir Putin's reputation on the global stage has already been battered in the run-up to the Olympics by the denunciation of Russia's new anti-gay law, boycott calls, mounting costs and environmental concerns.

But more than anything, particularly with the soccer World Cup to come in 2018 across the nation, Russia has to ensure Sochi is remembered only for sporting feats.

"Hardly anyone will perceive the games as a festive occasion if there are victims and devastation elsewhere," said Georgy Satarov, a former aide to President Boris Yeltsin.

For some competitors, anxieties about staying safe are already overriding podium ambitions and thoughts of post-competition sightseeing trips.

"I'm just going to stay in the bubble," U.S. speedskater Tucker Fredricks said. "I'm going to stay in my room, and go to the oval, and go back to my room. And that's it."

Teammate Jilleanne Rookard said Russia will want to avoid a "national embarrassment" at all cost, but she was still concerned about the non-athletes who will not be offered the same level of protection as Olympians.

"We worry about our parents, our family, our friends," Rookard said. "They're going to be normal tourists. I'm scared for them."

This isn't how Putin wants the world to be talking about his pet project.

Having aligned himself so closely with the costliest-ever Olympics, Putin's legacy could be defined by this $50 billion-plus sporting extravaganza.

One party has already been canceled. Fireworks and festivities to usher in the Olympic year were called off in Volgograd after the bombings.

One suicide bomber blew up at Volgograd's main railway station last Sunday, and another on a bus during Monday's rush hour.

After visiting the scene on Wednesday and receiving assurances that security was being strengthened, Putin returned to Sochi on Friday to show it was business as usual, even taking to the slopes with his skis.

Putin will be hoping to confound widespread trepidation about the first Olympics in Russia since the 1980 Summer Games, which were overshadowed by a U.S. boycott. This time around, the Kremlin is frustrated that U.S. President Barack Obama will not go to Sochi.

On Saturday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to offer his condolences for the Volgograd attacks and to say the U.S. "stands with the Russian people against terrorism," said Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Hagel also assured Shoigu that the United States "stands ready to provide security assistance to Russia for the Winter Olympics, if requested," Kirby said in Washington.

Putin's enthusiasm for lavish investment in Sochi appears to be in marked contrast to the Moscow Olympics build-up. Just a year after winning the bid in 1974, Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev questioned whether the hosting rights could be handed back.

According to recently declassified reports, Brezhnev wrote a note to his future successor Konstantin Chernenko, warning the Olympics would cost a lot and could bring about scandals that could tarnish the country's image.

Similar concerns are being voiced globally in 2014, if not in the Kremlin. And the Olympic leadership still insist Russia will be able to deliver safe games.

"When we come to Sochi, it will be impossible for the terrorists to do anything," said Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian IOC member who helped organize the 1994 Lillehammer Games. "The village will be sealed off from the outside world. Security has been our priority No. 1 ever since Sochi got the games ... for Russia, this is a matter of national pride."

Although no group has claimed responsibility for Volgograd, the bombings highlighted just how vulnerable the Winter Games could be to militant attacks -- particularly from the North Caucasus region, some 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the terror sites.

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