Critics would argue that Russian officials smothered the Olympic spirit long before this weekend's embarrassing blow at the start of the Olympic torch relay in Moscow.
With calls for boycotts and audits and other reminders of the sordid side of life under Vladimir Putin already drowning out some of the hype for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the last thing the Kremlin needs is a real or metaphorical flameout.
But that's exactly what it got on the first day of the Russian torch relay, when the Olympic flame was snuffed out as it toured the Kremlin on its way to the Black Sea resort in February (and again and again on the second and third days...see below).
It is an Olympic moment that Russians would just as soon forget.
In the video
, former Soviet world swimming champion Shavarsh Karapetyan (more on him later) is taken aback and looks around quizzically when the torch flickers out as he passes through the Kremlin gates in the nationally televised ceremony. A few steps later, after frantic gesturing from Karapetyan, an unidentified man steps forward to reignite the torch with a cigarette lighter.
Ten torchbearers passed the flame around the Kremlin grounds on October 6 after Putin lit the flame basin, so the fire that went out wasn't the only "Olympic flame" on hand.
The Sochi 2014 games are already proving controversial. There are tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns
, some of that funneled through businesses with connections to Kremlin cronies. There's a disgraced former senior Russian Olympic Committee official who claims to have been poisoned
. There are security concerns compounded by warning signs
that militants opposed to Moscow's policies in the North Caucasus might target the games. And there is uncertainty
over the treatment that gay and lesbian athletes and spectators can expect from Russian authorities guided by nebulous national legislation that makes homosexual "propaganda" a crime.
Human Rights Watch has issued a report called "Russia: Beyond The Olympic Torch's Glow,"
to highlight its "human rights concerns" as the torch relay makes its way through the country. It also launched an interactive "alternative torch relay map
" showing "key human rights cases in 39 major cities across Russia."
“Russia's torch relay aims to display the country’s diversity and history, but human rights abuses are very much a part of Russia's contemporary geography,” said Jane Buchanan, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. “People should be aware of the discrimination, silencing of activists, and other human rights abuses that Russia isn’t showcasing.”
The controversy over the treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in particular has prompted calls in the West for an international boycott of Sochi.
Russian policies aside, it was particularly unfortunate to see a mishap befall 60-year-old torchbearer Karapetyan, an ethnic Armenian and hero of epic proportions (haplessly described as "a portly former swim champion" by Reuters).
Karapetyan set countless Soviet and world swimming records on his way to dozens of major titles in his career. But those achievements pale against the heroism he showed in a well-chronicled episode
in 1976, when he saved 20 passengers whose bus had plunged into a reservoir in Yerevan. He subsequently expressed regret that he had been unable to save more of the 92 people aboard the bus, which he broke into by kicking through the back window in 10 meters of murky water.
Sadly, Karapetyan is nowhere to be found on the Sochi 2014 website's shortlist of "Torchbearers."
The Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay is scheduled to cover 65,000 kilometers in 83 Russian regions and conclude at the opening ceremony on February 7.
The torch was extinguished again during another Moscow leg of its journey and it took about a minute and a half for event officials to relight it. Watch from the 50-second mark of this video
, posted by Anastasia Naumova:
The flame petered out again -- the third and fourth times, for those counting -- inviting serious questions about those torches. Here's video
of the third outage:
And here's a Reuters video
that we ran in August of the Krasnoyarsk factory that manufactured the torches for Sochi 2014, which also "produces ballistic rockets for submarines" and other rocket parts:
-- Andy Heil