See you in Sochi - but it's no Vancouver

The Sochi Winter Games will probably bear little resemblance to its Vancouver predecessor.

Happy talk and the Olympic Games have become inextricably entwined. Every two years, a worldwide television audience numbering tens of millions is treated to inspiring deeds of athleticism, grace and grit. In between, it is treated to enough talk about peace, harmony and goodwill among nations to produce insulin shock. For Vancouver, the host of the Winter Games that ended earlier this week, the image is largely fitting.

There were discordant moments, certainly. One was the lack of snow, which prompted wags to dub the Games the "Early Spring Olympics". The death of the Georgian sledder Nodar Kumaritashvili on an unsafe track and the home team's reported hoarding of practice time at the expense of some foreign athletes were two others. Still, the Games conformed to the harmonious image that Olympic officials tirelessly tout. For Sochi, however, the Russian city along the Black Sea where the next Winter Olympics will be held, the fit will not nearly be so neat.

Sochi may be the crown jewel of the so-called Russian Riviera and a favourite haunt for Kremlin officials ever since the sulphur baths at nearby Matsesta caught the fancy of the dictator Josef Stalin. Nevertheless, it sits aside the six autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus, which teem with separatist movements and seethe with repression, poverty and violence. The border with disputed Abkhazia is only 10 kilometres away; Tbilisi, the capital of Russia's nettlesome neighbour Georgia, is 440km distant; Grozny, the capital of rebellious Chechnya, 482.

Those hearty few Canadians who used the Vancouver Games to champion the cause of "Cascadia" - a supposedly distinct "bioregion and eco-culture" encompassing southern Alaska, British Columbia and the north-west corner of the United States - can't match the real threats posed by the ethnic differences, pent-up grievances and the Kremlin's heavy-handedness at Sochi's doorstep. The site of the 2014 Winter Games and its neighbourhood roil in other ways, too. Southern Russia and the eastern Black Sea region are a haven for organised crime and a major transshipment point for the US$55 billion (Dh202bn) annual global trade in Afghan heroin, according to a report issued last week by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The killings of journalists and human-rights defenders are also a regular occurrence in southern Russia and the Caucasus, rights groups say. Under Russian law, demonstrations can be considered terrorist acts. The local media in Sochi "have been press-ganged into supporting the Kremlin policy of 'the games at any cost'", the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a statement last month. In short, the Sochi Winter Games - set to take place on what is expected to be a tiny island of police-secured calm amid a sea of violence, crime and poverty - will probably bear little resemblance to its Vancouver predecessor.

Such a troubling portrait is unlikely, however, to deter the Kremlin from trumpeting the Sochi jamboree as a triumph of "Russianness" and a herald of the nation's full return to greatness following the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Moscow's resolve was evident Wednesday, when Leonid Tyagachev, the head of the Russian Olympic Committee who is reportedly the prime minister Vladimir Putin's former ski instructor, resigned in the wake of the nation's humiliating performance at the Winter Games, where it won only 3 gold medals and 15 overall.

Earlier, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the nation's Olympic officials must have the courage to submit their resignation. And if they do not have this resolve, we will help them. Those comments paled next to those by Vyacheslav Bykov, the coach of Russia's hockey team, which failed to win any medal. "Let's put up a bunch of guillotines and gallows," the Russian media quoted Mr Bykov as saying. "We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let's go to Red Square and dispatch them all."

Alina Inayeh, director of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation for the German Marshall Fund, is not impressed by the Kremlin's muscle-flexing. "The Russian government can say anything it wants, but we all know that it is a weak state," Ms Inayeh said by telephone from the Romanian capital Bucharest. "The problems of holding the games in Sochi are big, and the government can only address them, not solve them. I see no sign that they are serious even about that," she said.

As the spotlight shifts from Vancouver to Sochi, it is not only Russian authorities that are under scrutiny. For International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, rhetoric is on a collision course with reality, too. Mr Rogge and other IOC officials continue to promote the Summer and Winter Games as catalysts for positive political change and improved respect for human rights, even as dictators and autocrats flog them for political purposes that differ sharply with these Olympic "ideals".

The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing resulted in forced evictions, the arrest of dissidents and, according to the monitoring group Human Rights Watch, an overall deterioration of human rights in China. In Vancouver, the IOC again championed the "Olympic spirit" and "Olympic movement" but did not address the fresh human-rights concerns wafting out Sochi. Instead, it appeared to save its toughest words for the Canadian women's hockey team, whose members celebrated their gold medal victory by drinking champagne in public.

Ms Inayeh believes that the IOC's credibility is at stake in Sochi and hopes Olympic officials recognise it. "Beijing tarnished the idea of the 'Olympic spirit' pretty badly", she said. "If nothing changes in Sochi, you can throw it out altogether".