Europe

Sports spotlight back on Sochi amid Crimea crisis

Overshadowed by the international crisis over Ukraine, Russia welcomes the sporting world back to Sochi this week for Winter Paralympics that will be snubbed by some politicians and will struggle to match the successful Winter Olympics that ended less than two weeks ago in the Black Sea resort.

The Olympic flame had only just been extinguished when Russian military action began in Crimea, the Ukrainian region some 300 miles (475 kilometers) northwest of Sochi. While the Olympics were acclaimed for overcoming logistical and security challenges, Russia's global reputation has suffered as a result of the operations in Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin's pet project, the costliest ever Olympics, has veered significantly from his script ahead of Friday's opening of the Paralympics, a 10-day event featuring hundreds of disabled athletes.

"It would be the height of cynicism to put the Paralympics at risk," Putin told reporters on Tuesday. "We all know that this is an international sports event at which people with disabilities can show their capabilities, prove to themselves and the entire world that they are not people with limitations, but on the contrary, people with unlimited possibilities, and demonstrate their achievements in sport."

The leader who tried to soft his image through sport — mingling with Americans at their Sochi headquarters, beaming with spectators and posing for selfies — is set to return to Sochi for the Paralympics while being condemned in Washington and European capitals for Russia's intervention in the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea where Russian speakers are in the majority.

If the Sochi infrastructure has showcased the modern, emboldened Russia's ability to stage large-scale events, by transforming a decaying resort at the cost of $51 billion, the military intervention in neighboring Crimea has projected the nation's geopolitical power again.

The challenge for Paralympic organizers is to prevent the tension along the Black Sea coast in Crimea from casting a shadow over the games. The Russian Paralympics Committee accepts that the crisis has created a "negative impact on the international situation" which could spill over into the ceremonies and sporting events.

"I call on all those responsible for successful organization of the games, which is a tremendous holiday and a source of inspiration for all the people with restricted abilities, to make maximum effort so as the existing conflicts should not give a bitter touch or disappoint the world," Russian Paralympic chief Vladimir Lukin said in a statement to Itar-Tass news agency. "This applies both to participants and guests of the Paralympics."

Empty VIP seats at the opening ceremony on Friday will be a testament to the ill-feeling toward Russia's actions in Ukraine. The United States and Britain, pressuring Putin to back down in Crimea, were among the first countries to order politicians not to travel to Sochi.

"If there are people ready to try to disrupt this event (the Paralympics), it would show that these are people for whom there really is nothing sacred," Putin said. The International Paralympic Committee has appealed for Russia to recognize the U.N.'s Olympic Truce, which asks warring parties to cease hostilities during the Olympics and Paralympics.

Across five sports — alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon, sledge hockey and wheelchair curling — 575 athletes from 45 countries will be competing. TV stations in more than 55 countries are due to broadcast the games, the IPC said.

Events will take place in the coastal cluster of stadiums bordering the Black Sea and in the Caucasus mountains an hour's bus ride away. "We're fully aware of what is going on elsewhere and will leave global politics to the politicians," IPC president Philip Craven said. "We're monitoring the situation closely and the safety and well-being of athletes and officials is our top priority."

The overwhelming security seen during the Olympics will probably be seen again during the Paralympics. A "ring of steel" was thrown up around venues and athletes villages and is still in place. And while the world is focused on the escalating tensions in Ukraine, Putin is hoping the 10-day Paralympics can have a positive impact within Russia.

"We think it is important that more and more people see the limitless possibilities of our athletes with disabilities," Putin said. "This gives the public the right kind of education and it also encourages officials at all levels to create a barrier-free environment."

Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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