Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.