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Gold medals and Cold War II

First gay rights and now Ukraine. The Sochi Games are looking surreal as they near their closing ceremonies.

Pascal Le Segretain

Yesterday and today, we're getting a reality check on the complex political setting of this Winter Olympics, and the way things are heating up in what I'd call Cold War II. The gay issue is one of many human-rights issues. Today American viewers are looking at viral footage of Cossack security militia beating members of Pussy Riot on the Sochi waterfront yesterday.  The embattled punk band had come to Sochi to attempt a street protest of Putin's human-rights policies.  They were detained, then later released, and posted a music video that shows the beatings.

Meanwhile, media reports from Sochi say that many athletes are shocked at how the Ukrainian conflict next door is escalating.  The Ukrainian Olympic Committee and its team were once again locking horns with the IOC over the team's wanting to wear black armbands. At the Games' start, the team had tried to don the armbands to show solidarity with the Kiev protesters and mourn the casualties. When the IOC nixed wearing the armbands, the Ukrainian team hung the armbands on the balconies of their village. 

Meanwhile, some Ukrainian athletes who finished their events have already left to go home.  AP, Reuters and other news sources report that departures include Ukrainian skier Bogdana Matsotska, 24, and her father, who is one of the coaches.  They withdrew from the upcoming women's slalom over their concerns about the situation. Still in Sochi is Ukrainian figure skater Natalia Popova, who skated in the women's short program last night. According to the NY Times, she said, "All I can do is just focus on my performance and hope my skating can inspire the people back in Ukraine to be more peaceful with each other."

In Kiev, Ukraine's capital just 600 miles from Sochi, the smoke and flames still darken the skyline. Yesterday a brief truce between the protesters and the pro-Russian Ukrainian government fell apart within hours. Today protester conflicts with police continued in the central square, bloodier than ever, with protesters saying that government snipers are picking them off from the rooftops.  Deaths are said to total 70 now, with hundreds injured.

In Europe today, the EU reacted by imposing sanctions, freezing assets and barring exports to Ukraine of equipment that could be used in anti-protester violence.  Here in the U.S., this crisis has Congress and the White House in a rare mode of agreement.  The House of Representatives had already passed HR 447, a resolution supporting the protesters in their bid for Ukrainian independence from Russian influence, and closer ties with the European Union. The House resolution calls for peaceful resolution of issues. The Senate just passed SR 357, a similar resolution.  Today, just hours ago, President Obama issued a statement calling for peaceful procedures on both sides, and threatening our own economic sanctions.

Reports make it clear that Russia, the EU and the U.S. are all looking at the possibilities -- and the extreme dangers -- of military intervention in Ukraine.  I'm old enough to remember those 1956 newsreels of Russian tanks rolling into Hungary when that country rose up against Soviet control.  So I wouldn't like to see that happen in Ukraine ... and I also don't want to see U.S. tanks rolling into Ukraine either.  Even the possibility of the Ukrainian government ordering its own troops into Kiev would create a horrible situation.

The fact is -- in spite of everything in the Olympic charter that opposes politicizing the Games, Sochi is one of the most political games in modern Olympic history.  Deeply political ripples have been running through the Games, underneath all its surface color, sports drama and extracurricular partying. In Cold War II, Russia and America are once again on opposite sides, as they were during the Soviet era. But circumstances are somewhat different today.

Some of Cold War II's tension is around economic stress and currency flow. Like other former Soviet nations, Russia is still recovering from the 1990 communist meltdown.  The Putin government poured $51 billion into Sochi not just to win medals and try to look democratic.  It's clear that they also aim to create a new resource to snag a steady flow of foreign-tourist cash.

Sochi already has history as an elegant resort (visitors can tour Stalin's old dacha, with its vintage swimming pool.)  Now, I think, Sochi and the Caucasus are intended to rival the French Riviera and the Alps.  Here the world's 1 Percenters might come and play year-round, enjoying Mediterranean-like seasides and mountain beauties in summer, and the superb Caucasian skiing in winter.  After the Games, the mountain village of Rosa Khutor will be developed further, aiming at 16 lifts and nearly 70 miles of trails. Surely Putin hopes to equal Switzerland's Davos and France's Chamonix.

It's no accident that the huge complex of new sports facilities is flanked by an equally impressive array of hotels, boutiques, banks, restaurants and state-of-the-art railway.  NBC's "Access Hollywood" sidebars have focused on what Russia can offer the well-heeled traveler.  We've been viewing gourmet food, fine vodka, fashion, luxury furs, spas, beautiful women, etc.  In short, the Sochi Games may be the single most expensive tourist commercial in modern history.

Putin is doing a balancing act -- trying to maintain a post-Soviet detente with the West, while keeping a strong hand on the rudder at home.  I'm reminded of how Spain opened up in the 1960s, after General Franco (another practitioner of the "strong hand") persuaded the Allies to forget he had once held hands with Hitler and Mussolini.  As his reward for staying out of World War II, Franco was allowed to open his doors to Europe and the Americas, and his country got a massive transfusion of tourist cash and foreign investment. What the U.S. got out of the deal was Spanish bases for SAC bombers and nuclear warheads. Spain threw up glittering tourist playgrounds along its own coasts, where visitors could enjoy all the good things that a recovering Spain had to offer.  I was living and working in Spain at that time, and got to see the changes.

On a larger scale, Putin is working to create his own trade zone, a rival to the EU -- namely, the proposed Eurasian Economic Union, which would unite a number of post-Soviet states in that whole region, from Armenia to Kazakhstan -- and also (Putin hopes) Ukraine.  The U.S. government, however, sees the proposed EAU as a Russian attempt to forge a new Russian empire, and they're working to block it.

All in all, the Sochi Games are looking surreal as they near their closing ceremonies in the midst of this powder-keg crisis.

Patricia Nell Warren is author of the award-winning and groundbreaking The Front Runner, along with some other fantastic novels and non-fiction books. She will be contributing to Outsports throughout the Olympics. You can read more about Patricia Nell Warren at Wildcat InternationalCopyright 2014 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.