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Russian President Vladimir Putin, a girl and a boy light an Olympic flame with a torch at Moscow's Red Square on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013. Russian President Vladimir Putin has lit the Olympic flame on Red Square for the 123-day relay to Sochi for the Winter Games. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
Column: Russia’s Olympic torch relay loses its way
First Published Jan 14 2014 08:54 am • Last Updated Jan 16 2014 02:23 pm

If Russia’s version of the Olympic torch relay is any indication, this year’s Winter Games could be among the most entertaining ever.

Without meaning to, the relay’s organizers have served up a wide-angle view of the real Russia: corrupt, innocently patriotic, accident-prone, creative, ridiculous, resourceful and occasionally flat-out awesome.

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The plan was grandiose: Carry the Olympic flame 65,000 kilometers (40,389 miles) through every region of Russia, visiting 2,900 towns and allowing 130 million Russians, or 90 percent of the country’s population, to see it in person. It would be the longest relay at a Winter Games since the Nazis started the torch-carrying tradition in 1936.

"The Sochi 2014 relay has an important mission: To bring together the whole country and rediscover the diversity and beauty of Russia, primarily for Russians themselves," Olympic organizing committee president Dmitry Chernyshenko said. "For one day each town through which the torches will pass will become the capital of the Olympic torch relay, and that is a unique chance for the towns to present themselves to the entire world."

Creativity is overflowing as Russian cities try to outdo one another. In Tambov, a gigantic ski hat was knitted to welcome the torch. In Chelyabinsk, a torch bearer rode a camel. On Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia, divers lit the flame underwater and then burst out of the frigid lake using a comic- book jet backpack. Deer sleds, a foray into outer space and shamans have all been part of a 123-day extravaganza that will continue through Feb. 7, the opening day of the Olympics.

The Olympic organizing committee spent 207 million rubles ($6.2 million) to purchase the requisite number of torches for 14,000 bearers, ranging from this year’s Miss Russia to the country’s culture minister. The torch was designed by Vladimir Pirozhkov, a Russian who has worked for Toyota and Citroen, and made at Krasmash, a factory known for producing ballistic missiles.

"It is based on a unique double burner system" that will never go out, Krasmash engineer Andrei Vodyanik, who was in charge of the project, boasted in an interview with the daily Izvestia.

From the start, however, things have not gone smoothly. Soon after President Vladimir Putin initiated the relay in Red Square, the flame died - due to a faulty valve, according to Chernyshenko. A security guard relit the torch with his Zippo lighter. Zippo immediately put the picture on its Facebook page with the hashtag .ZippoSavesOlympics, but later removed it amid concerns about legal repercussions. In Samara, on the Volga River, a torch burst into flames and had to be put out with an asbestos blanket. Again, a valve was blamed.

In a country where government contracts are typically vehicles for private enrichment, allegations and finger-pointing inevitably ensued. Inflated cost estimates, kickbacks and subpar work quality are among the reasons the Sochi Olympics have become the most expensive in history, with a $45 billion price tag, according to Russia’s ministry for regional development.

A disassembly test that went viral in Russia found the torches - which Krasmash sold to the Olympic committee for nearly $400 apiece - to be a simple, flimsy device, "assembled any which way." In October, a blogger reported that the torches had been assembled by students hired online by a Krasmash subcontractor.


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Pirozhkov insisted that the ones he tested before the relay worked perfectly. "If something is not working now, you have to talk to the people in Krasnoyarsk," he told the website Aif.ru. The news website Fontanka.ru claimed to have spoken to Krasmash workers, extracting the following comment: "We are very ashamed of what is going on."

Still, there is more to the relay than thievery, poor workmanship and torpid propaganda from state-owned news agencies, which ran headlines such as "Karelian Musicians Perform Olympic Anthem in Honor of the Torch Relay in Petrozavodsk."

Torch bearers and spectators are genuinely having fun. Tatyana Lysova, editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti, which is normally critical of the Kremlin and which has investigated numerous corruption scandals, was ebullient about her torch-carrying experience.

"Hurrah! I did not set myself on fire and the torch did not go out!," Lysova wrote on Facebook. "Lots of children came out to be photographed. Even on the bus I had to keep smiling and waving for an hour. I liked it!" Social networks are full of similarly upbeat comments from those who saw the relay.

This being a capitalist Russia, some participants immediately went on to sell their torches at a profit.

No public relations effort, no amount of gloss and whitewash will prevent Russia’s true nature, by turns serene and mercenary, amazingly beautiful and unspeakably ugly, from bursting out. Big events like the Olympics are designed to be showcases. Russia has paid billions of dollars to be seen. Now it will be.

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Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter at Bershidsky.

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