The pressing Olympic question for the brass-knuckled leader of Russia known as Vladimir Putin is crystal clear: Can he create a bulletproof snow globe?
If you will be looking for festive twinkle lights and tipsy merriment in the village streets of Sochi next month, if you will be searching out inspirational moments by athletes or tight finishes for gold or snow falling on vistas, you will have to overlook the roadblocks into town and rocket launchers at the ready and the tall lambs-wool hats of Cossacks.
You know the Cossacks, those burly enforcers of the Russian tsar era, throwbacks to the empire days, bouncers in epaulettes. They're back and burlier than ever, joining 37,000 security forces to patrol the streets and shores of a Black Sea resort that will be in lockdown for the month of February. On this dystopian landscape, the Olympics will resemble the Hunger Games more than the Winter Games even through the soft lens NBC typically uses in these moments.
Not even NBC's band of cheery hosts - who smiled through the smog enveloping the 2008 Beijing Games without blinking a burning red eye -- can ignore the culture of fear and loathing infusing the backdrop of Sochi.
Here's the fear: Months after Islamic insurgency leader Doku Umarov denounced the Games as sacrilege to the region, six dead bodies in different areas within 150 miles of the Olympic site were found next to explosives this week, this after 34 died in two bombings in Volgograd six hours away at a transit hub crucial to Olympic travel two weeks earlier. "I am certain that we will fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation," Putin said…before the six bodies were found. Comforting.
Here's the loathing: Angering every progressive nation on the planet in June, Putin crawled out of a Mad Men time capsule to sign a purposely vague bill that promotes punishing LGBT Russians with physical force and legal retribution for homosexual "propaganda" in an apparent effort to prevent the scourge of same-sex hand holding in public. Putin has defended his pre-Glee thinking by calling Russia a moral authority defending against the depraved drumbeat of "genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance." Again, comforting.
Putin suckered the willfully ignorant and diabolically political IOC into awarding Russia an Olympics. He promised this was a vote to promote his post-Soviet country - c'mon, he released a member of Pussy Riot, didn't he? -- when it was only an opportunity to fete himself. What to do? There is really only one choice. Anyone who has witnessed an athlete sacrifice, struggle and ache through a Ramen-Noodles existence to reach an Olympic moment would not suggest a boycott of Sochi. Boycott talk is for pundits who never get off a couch. Athletes go forward and cope with the megalomaniac hosting the party.
The USOC has been prepping its athletes for the culture clash by engaging them in its Ambassador Program - or the Miss Manners seminar. As USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky explained in an email, "The program is an important opportunity for us talk with athletes about the uniqueness of the Games experience and the athletes opportunity, and responsibility, to represent our country on the biggest stage in sports. Additionally, we discuss the social and cultural norms of each host country, educate athletes on important issues and the USOC's stance on those issues, and make sure that everyone understands the various guidelines put in place by the International Olympic Committee."
This is not a case of going along to get along. President Obama sent that message when selecting a gay-pride trifecta - tennis icon Billie Jean King, two-time hockey Olympian Caitlin Cahow and former gold medalist Brian Boitano -- for the US delegation to Sochi.
As Sandusky noted, out of respect to the Olympic charter, US athletes are "encouraged to avoid using the Games as a platform for advocacy. … The fact that we do not think it is our role to advocate for a change in the Russian law does not mean that we support the law, and we do not."
Given the free spirits and dedicated activists among the US athletes, not everyone is going to color within the lines. Who will be the first to go rogue? Someone will be the first American to screw etiquette and have a "John Carlos moment," as King told USA Today in September, referencing the fist for Black Power that Carlos raised at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. One athlete's show of activism is NBC's panic attack. As an Olympic rights holder with hundreds of millions on the line, with scandal-averse sponsors buying ad placements next to uplifting sepia-toned features as Olympic television staples, NBC will be on the spot as the broadcaster of record with superior access.
There are skeptics. Members of Queer Nation NY have protested NBC for being complicit to Russia's anti-gay laws and human rights violations by ignoring the issue in its coverage. NBC promises not to look the other way if news issues arise. Can the network of record be trusted? No, not on its own, not after the repeated airbrushing over the human rights issues in China. But NBC will be held accountable to a world post-Beijing Games and post-Arab spring uprising. Social media has rapidly changed the demands on traditional media outlets. What they don't see, someone with a smartphone will. The social media citizens will keep NBC honest because it cannot afford to be beaten on any Russian beatdown by a brave teen with a Twitter account.
NBC has the knowhow. No one is more skilled and agile in a crisis than Bob Costas, who will anchor the primetime coverage. And once you break through the Today Show fluff, Matt Lauer can channel his inner newsman after a how-to-cut-the-calories-in-
Every Olympics carries risk (see the 1996 Atlanta Games) but in the intelligence world centered on known terrorist threats, the last time there was this much security stress over an Olympics was at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, which took place fewer than five months after 9-11 and right in the middle of the anthrax scares. Fans had to maneuver through the cobweb of bag checks and security posts with 15,000 police and military personnel - yes, half the force of what Russia is planning for Sochi - but the crowds managed to feel the spirit of the moment in the festive medal plaza and in the glitter of lights lining the streets. The security was not a killjoy in what would be called the Healing Games. For Russia, and everyone who dares to go, it will be a survival game of a different name.