Monopoly Games

Like almost no national leader before him, Putin has expended personal capital on these Olympics. In 2007 he presented Russia's Olympic bid -- speaking in both English and French, which surprised most everyone -- to the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala. He then pledged $12 billion from the state budget to build the Sochi Olympics from scratch. (The 2010 Vancouver Olympics cost $7 billion.) The first of that $12 billion flowed into Sochi from the state starting in late 2007, funding the construction of ski resorts, roadways, rinks and power plants. It soon became clear that Putin's estimate would have to be adjusted. Considerably. Last February RIA Novosti, Russia's state media service, announced that the Olympics had cost the government $50 billion, transforming Sochi into the most expensive Olympics ever.

When he assumed power in 1999, after a calamitous decade in which his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, devolved into a bumbling alcoholic, Putin brought stability to his country, relative to the period that preceded his presidency. That much is indisputable. Principally, he accomplished this because of rising global oil prices (Russia projects to be No. 3 in the world for oil production in 2013) and his re-establishment of state rule over business. He also clamped down on political opposition and the free press, peddling his concept of state control to the populace over Kremlin-owned TV. Increasingly, he used the imagery of sports to communicate his vigor to his people, from his longtime practice of judo to his recent dabbling in hockey. He's been photographed fishing, hiking, hunting and riding horseback, all without a shirt. The 61-year-old's photo ops provide steady reminders that today's leader of Russia is alert at the helm.

He can portray the resourceful, fearless commander a bit too lustily. In 2011 Putin went scuba diving at an archaeological camp off the Russian coast. He soon re-emerged carrying the remains of what looked to be earthen jars. He strode up the dock in his wet suit, a satisfied look on his face, apparently having made an archaeological discovery. "Treasure," he said. It turned out that these were Greek pieces from the early medieval period. It also turned out that the archaeologists working in the area had unearthed these jugs some time previous to Putin's recreational dive and placed them in shallow water for Putin to find.

The resulting perception that he was playing a role hardly mattered. Putin so monopolizes Russia's national conception of itself by now that whatever he does is by definition acceptable. After all, there is no other candidate, no other option.

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