Monopoly Games

Mayak's owner, Andrei Tenichev, said he has faced no crackdown since the new law went into effect. He said his club operates as it always has, with no interference, here right off the Black Sea beach. "Sochi has always been a tolerant place," Tenichev said. "I'm worried about extremism in Russia, but we haven't experienced it so far." Putin is perhaps too smart to give such ammunition to the openly gay delegates, including Billie Jean King, whom Obama is sending to Sochi.


I joined a hockey game in the coastal cluster just a few months after the fake presidential press conference. I skated with a team of employees from Olympstroy, the state-owned contractor for Olympic venues. We played on a modest practice rink, which national teams will use at the Olympics.

On the bench, the players discussed the importance of Russia's winning gold in hockey. Vladimir Cherkasov, the manager of the Olympic rinks, mentioned the humiliation of Russia's last Olympic game, a 7-3 quarterfinal defeat to Canada in Vancouver. "Other teams will come here to win or lose," he said. "We will win, or we will die."

They speak in the context of the Soviet hockey team, the Big Red Machine, symbol of Soviet geopolitical power. There is strong in Russian society, and there is weak, and there is nothing else. In the Soviet era, the national hockey team dominated international tournaments (de facto professionals in the amateur competitions), winning gold in seven of the nine Olympics in which it entered. In the last five Olympics, Russia has medaled only twice, once earning silver, once bronze. While Russians revere the dominant Soviet team with emotional attachment, they deride its pathetic Russian successor, stocked as it has been with individualistic mercenaries from the NHL. With the games in Sochi, under Putin's banner of new Russian strength, the pressure on the team will be immense. It will be stocked, but the general manager of one Scandinavian national team says: "Russia might ?not medal."

The players' eyes moistened in the memory of what was, nostalgia strongest in those who have lost a (cold)war. All they talk about is a Sochi final matchup with Canada, their old antagonist and measuring stick from the days of the Canada Cup. Alexander Stus, a manager for Olympstroy, gestures at the rink. "Why do you think we built all this?" he asks. "If we lose, they should shoot everyone."

Russia's hockey players aren't the only ones who might be concerned about their future. In Krasnaya Polyana, my taxi drove past hundreds of muddied migrant workers. Workers have continually complained of late payment. In October one laborer appeared at Sochi's Olympic media center, his lips sewn together in protest of two months' worth of unpaid wages. In 2012 more than 25 laborers died in accidents on Olympic-related sites. My driver turned up the car radio, his voice concealed by the noise, and said, "I know where they're buried." He said there is a mass grave in the mountains, holding the bodies of 50 or so workers. I asked him where this grave was located, if he could take me there. His face went slack, and he mumbled something indecipherable. Later, others spoke of such a grave. It exists as a phantom of local conviction, that the Russian state and its contract construction firms, in their authority, are capable of ripping up not only the land but the people.

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