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At Sochi Games, Putin evokes spirit of 1980

(From L to R) Olympic Village Mayor Elena Isinbaeva, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth polic
(From L to R) Olympic Village Mayor Elena Isinbaeva, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth polic

By Timothy Heritage

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Political controversy, tight security and mega-construction projects: for Sochi 2014, read Moscow 1980.

The Communist Soviet Union has collapsed and the Cold war has ended since Moscow organized the Summer Olympics 34 years ago, but there remain some striking parallels with the Winter Games opening in Sochi on Friday.

In bringing the Olympics to Russia, President Vladimir Putin is following in a tradition dating back to Soviet times of using sport to project his country as a world-beating superpower.

Putin wants to use the Games to portray Russia as a modern state that has come a long way since Soviet times. Not surprisingly for a man brought up in the Soviet Union and a former KGB spy, he is looking to 1980 for inspiration.

"We have strong memories of the emotional, uplifting enthusiasm we felt during the 1980 Moscow Olympics and ... the mighty, inspiring spirit of the Olympics is once again returning to our nation," he told Olympic chiefs in Sochi this week.

For ageing Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, sport was one of the few fields where a country facing shortages and lagging the West on living standards could show itself as a dominant force.

What he was trying to sell was the superiority of the socialist system.

Too bad for Brezhnev that the United States led a boycott of the Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Putin has at least avoided that embarrassment but only after boycott calls by gay rights activists over a Russian law banning the spread of "gay propaganda" among minors failed.

Too bad also that celebrating the glories of socialism in 1980 meant filling the empty shop shelves with Western goods that were all but impossible to find - the fruits of capitalism - and keeping dissidents away from visiting foreigners.

To do so, the KGB mounted a security operation no less intricate than the enforcement of the "ring of steel" around Sochi that is meant to prevent Islamist militants carrying out threats to attack the Games.

VERITABLE CORNUCOPIA

The people of 1980 Moscow, or those who remained in the city after being urged to get away on vacation during the Games, may have been uneasy over the clampdown on dissidents but they certainly loved the festive atmosphere.

"Fanta and Pepsi Cola were among the 'exotic' products that appeared in the shops but things that had been in short supply -

good-quality sausage and cheese - also became available," said Valentina Klimova, who was 24 at the time of the Moscow Games and worked as an interpreter.

"Things appeared first for the athletes in the dining areas of the Olympic village and then, after the Olympics, they were in the shops - Finnish yoghurt in plastic containers, large Spanish and Greek olives. They'd not been in the shops before."

Marlboro cigarettes were suddenly available. They were so popular - and usually so hard to get - that the few Westerners working or studying in Moscow could flash them at the side of the road to flag down cars and pay for rides.

They were good times for Klimova. She met her future husband during a training course before the Games as they prepared to work with visiting Olympic delegations.

Like Putin in Sochi, Brezhnev saw big construction projects in Moscow as a way to impress the West.

Up went an equestrian centre in the south of Moscow, a cycle track and rowing canal in the west and the Dynamo "Palace of Sports" in the north-west.

About 10 new hotels were built - and most are still in use today. So is the Olympic stadium in central Moscow, now used for concerts by Western stars such as Paul McCartney whose group, The Beatles, was once frowned on in the Soviet Union.

The Olympic village, the crowning glory of the Games projects, is to this day an elite area of the capital.

"We lived in comfortable apartments that needed little alteration after the Games. In the Olympic cafeteria there was a veritable cornucopia - fish, salmon, red caviar, black caviar, various cheeses, sausages, jams, juices in a carton with a straw," said Vladimir Salnikov, now 53, one of the Soviet heroes of the 1980 Games with three swimming gold medals.

REGRETS

He deeply regretted the Games boycott by the United States and dozens of other countries, partly because he saw the world's athletes as one big happy family and partly because the absence of some of the world's best sportsmen took some of the shine off his nation's sporting successes at the Olympics.

"It was a comprehensive success. But it was clouded by the fact that not everyone saw our successes and many athletes did not come to Moscow. A similar experience was experienced by American athletes four years later in Los Angeles," he said.

The 1984 Los Angeles Games were boycotted by the Soviet bloc, in what was seen as retaliation for the 1980 boycott.

The Soviet Union topped the medals table in 1980 with 80 gold, 69 silver and 46 bronze. The United States enjoyed similar domination of the 1984 Games.

The contrast between Los Angeles and Moscow was striking.

"I went from the command and control of a Moscow Games which was a fantastic Games, brilliantly well organised, there were more world records in that Games than any Games before," said Sebastian Coe, who won gold in the 1,500 meters and silver in the 800 meters in both 1980 and 1984.

"But then four years later, there was an opening ceremony with 84 white grand pianos, Liberace lookalikes and Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and rocketman taking off from the finishing straight."

Coe's remarks highlight how Brezhnev's attempts to win the West over to socialism failed. Like most Westerners, and many Russians, Coe welcomes the changes since 1980.

"It's a wholly changed world and from a personal perspective, I think it's a wholly better world for many people," Coe said in Sochi.

Brezhnev was also unlucky that the death of popular singer and actor Vladimir Vysotsky coincided with the Games and drew many Russians' attention away from the sporting field. So many were on the streets mourning his death that state security had to be diverted from the Games to his Moscow funeral.

DECLINE

The Soviet Union topped the medals table no fewer than 13 times at the winter and summer Olympics between 1952 - the year Putin was born - and 1991 - the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

But by 1980 the Soviet Union was heading into decline, Brezhnev was 74 and his long rule came to be known as the "era of stagnation." Any gains from the Olympics were temporary.

Putin's dream of using the Olympics to showcase Russia's achievements is also far from certain to succeed.

He has won praise from other world leaders and the International Olympic Committee for overseeing the transformation of Sochi, a Soviet-era summer resort, into a modern winter sports hub in less than seven years.

But his record on democracy and human rights is under scrutiny, Islamist militants have threatened to attack the Games and there have been reports of corruption and mismanagement as the expected price tag for Sochi rose above $50 billion.

Putin, who saw off street protests against his rule in the winter of 2011-12 and faces accusations of economic and political stagnation in his third term as president, may want to take note of Brezhnev's performance in 1980.

Brezhnev waved stiffly from the stands as massed ranks of gymnasts and folk dancers and hundreds of cavorting Misha bears - the cuddly mascot of the Games - welcomed the world at the opening ceremony.

A popular joke at the time summed it up:

"At the 1980 Olympics, Brezhnev begins his speech: "O!"—applause. "O!"—more applause. "O!"—yet more applause. "O!"—an ovation. "O!!!"—the whole audience stands up and applauds. An aide comes running to the podium and whispers, "Leonid Ilyich, those are the Olympic logo rings, you don't need to read them!"

Within a little over two years, he was dead, to be followed in quick succession by two more elderly leaders who did not survive long in the top job. In just over a decade the entire Soviet system was swept away.

(Additional reporting by Mark Trevelyan, Dmitriy Rogovitskiy, Maria Kiselyova, Richard Balmforth and Keith Weir; Editing by Ossian Shine)

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