Sochi's Sixth Ring
Monday, Feb. 10, 2014
By Simon Shuster / Sochi

On the foggy Friday afternoon of Jan. 17, a convoy carrying Russia's top Olympic managers crawls up a narrow ridge of the Caucasus Mountains toward the Laura sports complex, one of the venues that will host the Winter Games. But the real master of the Games--Russian President Vladimir Putin--is already inside.

With the Sochi Olympics scheduled to begin on Feb. 7, nearly all the preparations have been finished. What's left are the last-minute security precautions, "what we call fine-tuning," says Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of Russia's Olympic Organizing Committee. But all eyes in the final days are on Putin, who insists on managing the last details himself. He's already laced up his skates to test the ice at the hockey rink. As the top Olympic managers wait in a conference room on an upper floor of the Laura complex, Putin pauses for several minutes in a ground-floor hallway, his head bowed, to inspect a report on Sochi's transportation system. In whispers, his bodyguard warns me not to interrupt. "He considers these Games his baby," Chernyshenko tells me afterward. "So it's natural that he's taking care of them himself."

Natural, perhaps, but also necessary. Any security breach, let alone a terrorist attack during the Games, could blow a hole through Putin's carefully constructed and fiercely guarded image as Russia's great protector. Too much has already been wagered on this effort for him to leave anything to chance. Russia has spent nearly $2 billion on security alone, while the total cost of more than $50 billion will make these the costliest Olympics ever.

If all goes smoothly, Sochi could be the redeeming triumph of Putin's career. A Sochi Games remembered for medals, records and hospitality rather than terrorism and fear could demonstrate that the rigid command structure he has installed during his nearly 10 years as President and nearly five as Prime Minister--running a government his critics dismiss as deeply corrupt and inefficient, sputtering along on easy profits from the sale of oil and gas--was exactly what was needed to show the world that modern Russia is capable of hosting one of the world's greatest celebrations of sports.

But the attention Putin has lavished on "his baby" has also made it an enormously tempting target for his enemies. Sochi lies a day's drive from the heartland of insurgents who have been fighting for more than a decade to turn the region into an Islamic state. Their tactics include regular suicide bombings: in the four months leading up to the Games, four separate bombings have struck cities close to Sochi, one in Pyatigorsk and three in Volgograd, killing at least 43 people and wounding dozens more. "Every terrorist in the region has been waiting for this chance to hit Putin where it hurts," says Yulia Yuzik, an author who has written two books about suicide bombers in the region.

In a way, the insurgents have already succeeded in tainting these Olympics with fear. Although the Obama Administration has not advised athletes or spectators to stay away from Sochi, it warns of an "uptick in threat reporting." And the talk of "black widow" suicide bombers and Internet threats from purported terrorists has Olympians rethinking plans to have family members make the trip. It is eerily reminiscent of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, just months after 9/11, when armed FBI agents patrolled the slopes of Park City along with the National Ski Patrol, waiting for terrorists to descend from 10,000 feet high in the Rockies. None did.

Despite the escalating threats, Putin does not arrive at the Laura complex with his usual cortege of a dozen armored cars. He doesn't need to. Sochi and its suburbs are already encircled in what authorities are calling the ring of steel, a security measure unprecedented in Olympic history. Some 40,000 troops have been deployed around Sochi, amounting to more than 10% of the city's population. (By comparison, a police force of 6,000 guarded the last Winter Games in Vancouver, a city 30% larger than Sochi.) Cars registered in other parts of Russia have been barred from the city for the duration of the Games, and Sochi residents are discouraged from driving at all. In the mountain cluster of Olympic venues above Sochi, getting on a ski lift or crossing a pedestrian bridge requires a security-screening process no less stringent than those at New York City airports.

In essence, the ring of steel has returned Sochi to its original state--that of a fortress on Russia's frontier. The armies of Czar Nicholas I erected its walls in the 1830s, when the Russian Empire was expanding southward to the Black Sea coast. Then as now, the main threat Russia faced in the region was not from foreigners but from the defiant gortsy, the local highlanders whose warfaring skills had been shaped by a history of fending off invaders, including the Romans, Persians and Ottoman Turks. Russia's struggle to subdue the gortsy took most of the 19th century, as even the Czars' most able caste of warriors--the Cossacks--struggled to pacify the native horsemen.

Ancient history and its grudges run through the present conflict, and Putin has revived some old-time methods for dealing with the threats. In 2008 he rearmed the Cossacks. Their military units had been disbanded in Soviet times, when the Communist Party persecuted their Orthodox Christian faith and derided their culture as a relic of the Russian monarchy. But less than a year after Russia was awarded the Games, the region that includes Sochi restored the Cossacks' official status (and government paychecks) as defenders of the Russian borderlands--the same function they served under the Czars. Visitors to the Olympics will find them patrolling Sochi and its suburbs in their traditional uniform of lamb's-wool hats and knee-high boots. "The Olympics will be our chance to prove our worth," says Vladimir Davydov, a local Cossack officer and Sochi city councilman. "So we cannot allow ourselves to fail in defending them."

Neither can Putin. The core promise of his leadership has always been security, even when it comes at the expense of civil liberties and democratic reforms. In 2000, when he first came to power, that was a bargain Russians were all too eager to accept. The freewheeling 1990s, the first decade of democracy in Russian history, had seen two wars against separatist guerrillas in the region of Chechnya and ended in 1999 with a string of bombings in Moscow. Putin took over the following year with his famous pledge to drown the terrorists "in the outhouse" and to restore a sense of calm.

So these Olympics are a test of whether Putin's iron fist can guarantee security for even a couple of weeks in just one corner of the Caucasus. That is why the fortress of Sochi was built at such cost, and if it fails this time, Russia's grip on those mountains will look as weak to the world as when the gortsy still used sabers instead of bombs. "We always knew the stakes," says Chernyshenko. "We knew from the beginning that it's unforgivable not to deliver everything that has been promised." But as the opening ceremony has moved closer, so has the drumbeat of manhunts, terrorism alerts and explosions in Sochi's backyard. With all that, the promise of a tranquil month of sports, and a Russia free from fear, may already be impossible to deliver.

Sochi's Sixth Ring








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Monday, Feb. 10, 2014
Road to Redemption
By Simon Shuster / Sochi

Four years ago, when the last winter olympics came to an end, Russia's state news agency RIA Novosti captured the nation's feelings about Team Russia's medal haul with a headline: nightmare in vancouver. Never in its history had the Russian team (or, for that matter, the Soviet one) performed as atrociously at the Winter Games. Viacheslav Fetisov, the Russian hockey legend who served as the Kremlin's top sports official leading up to those Games, remembers Vancouver as a "total collapse" — and a hard lesson. "We learned a lot," he says. "And now we have a chance at redemption in Sochi."

As one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history, Fetisov captained Russia's bid in 2007 to host this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi. Since then, he has also been one of the few senior Olympic officials to dare set a target for the Sochi medal count. "Fourteen golds," he tells Time. "I believe that's realistic." With the home-field advantage, maybe. But it would also be the best Winter Olympics showing in Russian or Soviet history. Redemption? More like a miracle on ice.

For his part, Vladimir Putin, the President of a superstitious nation, has avoided jinxing the national team with any predictions, especially after the humiliation in Vancouver sent Russia's athletes home with a measly three golds, none of which were in the sports that Russia tends to dominate — figure skating and hockey. (The team also won five silver and seven bronze medals.) For months afterward, Putin couldn't get away from the topic. "Wherever I go, the first question is about Vancouver, 'What happened in Vancouver, what was the problem?'" he complained to a meeting of sports officials that spring. "People have even stopped asking about their wages, about the economy."

The Vancouver disaster remains the subject of an ongoing blame game. Some officials claim that training budgets had been pilfered. Others point to the unseasonably warm weather. Still others, including Fetisov, say the athletes suffered from jet lag because they arrived in Vancouver too close to the Games. As host nation, Russia clearly can't blame jet lag this year. So all eyes are now on the lineup of Russian athletes hoping to make good in Sochi.

The crowd favorite will be Evgeni Plushenko, the three-time world figure-skating champion who won gold at the Torino Games in 2006. He will compete only a year after undergoing major surgery on his spine, and at the age of 31, these will probably be his last Olympics. The other Team Russia darling is Evgeny Ustyugov, who became a national hero for bringing home a precious gold from Vancouver in the biathlon, the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting. Russia's hockey team also looks strong, with several stars playing in the National Hockey League, including Washington Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin, one of the world's best.

But home-field advantage may not do the Russian stars much good. Because of construction delays, Olympic venues in Sochi only opened for training at the end of January, leaving the locals only a week to gain an edge over their foreign rivals. And the moral support expected from cheering home crowds may not be as strong as it could be; three weeks before the opening ceremony, Russia's Olympic Organizing Committee announced that 30% of its tickets remain unsold, about 10 times more than at the end of the Games in Vancouver and the Summer Olympics in London in 2012. "Don't worry," says Fetisov. "Our fans know how to cheer. The ones who show up in Sochi, their energy, that's what will get us the gold." And if Team Russia does get enough of it, Putin may never have to answer questions about Vancouver again.

Road to Redemption







Monday, Feb. 10, 2014
An Olympic Ice Storm
By Alice Park / Boston

For more than a decade, coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva have been the go-to taskmasters of ice dancing. He made the U.S. relevant by demanding that athletes stop treating ice dancing as an also-ran event; she insisted on seemingly impossible precision moves and conditioning to turn dancers into athletes. Together, their renown has helped them attract the sport's top talent, including nearly half a dozen teams who are contenders for a medal in Sochi. Together, they became the winningest coaching team in U.S. ice-dancing history. Considering the turnaround that has occurred under their guidance, the 2014 Games should be a shining moment for the duo.

Except for one problem: they aren't talking to each other.

In a very public--and poorly timed--professional breakup, Shpilband and Zoueva parted company in 2012. The dispute has become the defining drama of ice dancing for this Olympics--no small accomplishment in this oft-derided soap opera of a sport that in past years has seen love triangles between competing teams. He was fired from the Canton, Mich., rink where the two had worked since 2003, while Zoueva remained. "She not exist for me," says Shpilband in Russian-accented English.

As a result, dance duos who had logged thousands of hours on the ice with Shpilband and Zoueva were forced to choose sides just a year before the Games. The athletes--including six-time national champions and gold-medal favorites Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who chose to train with Zoueva--say they are ready to compete. But there is no question that they and all the other skaters affected by the split will take the ice in the shadow of the squabble. Depending on how the marks and medals are handed out, Sochi could vindicate one coach or the other--or if the U.S. falls flat, the battle between these two big-name coaches could become the scapegoat.

Ice dancing first became a medal sport at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck. Meant to highlight the more precise, technical bladework required to translate familiar ballroom styles like the quick step and European waltz to the ice, it lacked the wow factor of figure skating's spectacular jumps and dizzying spins. So it was no surprise that few skaters (and more important, few parents of young skaters) in the U.S. were clamoring to be Fred and Ginger on ice. After earning a bronze at Innsbruck, the U.S. entered a 20-year stretch with no medals, while East European skaters, who benefited from a long cultural history in dance, dominated with dramatic storytelling and technical skill. In the U.S., dance became the sideshow for skaters who couldn't make it in singles or pairs.

Shpilband, an affable Russian with close-cropped dark blond hair and the ruddy complexion of someone who spends a lot of time in cold rinks, was a prime force in changing that. In 1990, when he was touring as a skater (with ice-dance legends Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean), Shpilband and four others, including his soon-to-be first wife, defected from the Soviet Union. They left their hotel room in New York with nothing but their skates and cameras in order to avoid suspicion. "None of them spoke English," says Johnny Johns, then skating director of the Detroit Figure Skating Club, who had been looking for ice-dance coaches to fill out his roster. Impressed by their résumés, Johns took them in.

Shpilband skated professionally in shows, but to help him earn more money, Johns and other coaches threw him some young students to work with. Transplanted from a country that had won seven of the 10 Olympic golds awarded in ice dancing, Shpilband was blissfully ignorant of the American perceptions of the sport and set about training his young charges to become future champions. "U.S. ice dancers needed to be more theatrical, more out there and over the top," says Judy Blumberg, who competed for the U.S. in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. Shpilband brought that desperately needed quality to American teams--as well as a strict training ethic. "He had a Russian approach, and he wouldn't say, 'That was O.K.,' " says Ben Agosto, whom Shpilband paired with Tanith Belbin and guided to a silver in 2006, the U.S.'s first Olympic ice dancing medal in 20 years. "He'd say, 'That wasn't good enough.' "

A turning point in the sport came in 2001, when Shpilband and Johns invited Zoueva to join the increasingly popular program. It was a shrewd move that coincided with a change in rules that made the judging of ice dance more objective. Zoueva, a former junior ice dancer who hailed from the same Red Army Skating Club in Moscow where Shpilband trained, was a perfect match for him in mind-set and vision. Best known for her work with Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, the elegant pairs team and two-time Olympic figure-skating champs, she brought a creative flair to the coaching and choreography and a laserlike focus on conditioning and off-ice training. She and Shpilband consulted with acrobats from Cirque du Soleil to mastermind breathtaking lifts and invited dance specialists to give their skaters' programs the authenticity and memorable moments that judges rewarded.

As Shpilband and Zoueva's success grew, so did demands on their time. In 2003 they moved their program 30 miles (48 km) west to Arctic Edge Arena in the Detroit suburb of Canton, where daily, dedicated time for ice dancing was available. Joining them at their new facility were Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (whom the two guided to Olympic gold in 2010), as well as Madison Chock and Evan Bates and the up-and-coming brother-sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani.

There was also Meryl Davis and Charlie White, hoping to outdance the Canadians to win the U.S.'s first gold in the event. Davis had never danced before when she was paired with White in 1997. "I'm not going to lie, I was a little put off that she didn't know anything about ice dance, since I was already on the European waltz," White jokes about their first encounters. But Davis, also a singles skater, immediately took to dance, which meant having a partner and a hand to hold. "I hated skating by myself," says Davis. Having White on the ice with her helped calm the butterflies and make competing bearable, even enjoyable.

By then, Shpilband and Zoueva had made a virtue of having multiple top teams under their wing. "We never second-guessed the value of training with our competition," says Belbin, who shared ice time with her rivals during the 2000s. The lineups for training sessions looked like a world championship. The medalists for the 2011 Worlds, in fact, all trained in Canton: Davis and White (gold), Virtue and Moir (silver) and the Shibutanis (bronze).

But while the skaters were making history together, Shpilband and Zoueva's relationship started to come apart in 2012. Zoueva told the skaters that Shpilband wanted to coach students exclusively and that that would affect their training and ice time. Shpilband denies this and says he was blindsided by the questions about his commitment and dedication to his students. He says that Zoueva was scheduling training sessions without consulting him and that there were "lots of lies in the story--people and skaters [got] manipulated."

As the coaches continued to feud--including in a public argument in the arena's lobby--the rink's management asked Davis and White whom they would choose if the coaches split. They chose Zoueva, so Shpilband was fired. He sued, Davis and White were deposed, and although the case was settled, the bitter feelings remain. "I don't have any relationship with her," Shpilband says.

Only Chock and Bates opted to move one suburb north with Shpilband to the Novi Ice Arena, and they said their training didn't miss a beat. The skaters who stayed with Zoueva have been mum about the split but are still on good terms with Shpilband. "I don't regret anything that I have done," he says. "Life goes on. I'm really happy to see Meryl and Charlie and Tessa and Scott and the Shibutanis succeeding. We spend so many years together, and you give not just your time but your life and your passion. That's not going away. I will always be cheering for them."
















Monday, Feb. 10, 2014
Teen Queen of Slalom
By Bill Saporito

For American ski prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin, practice (and lots of sleep) makes perfect

As one of the youngest racers on the World Cup tour, 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin has an advantage over her older competitors: sleep. That's important, because in her specialty, the slalom, some of the races are run at night. "People waste energy in the morning, and they have none left at night," she says. Shiffrin spends those late-race days logging z's and then some. "I sleep a lot, as a teenager," she says, "and even as teenagers go too."

Maybe her opponents can't sleep because they know they face in Shiffrin the reigning world slalom champion and the first American to hold that title since 1984. Shiffrin is a racing prodigy who won two world titles before she graduated from high school. She's been running gates since she was a runny-nosed toddler, schooled by her ski-racing mom and dad (a nurse and a doctor in civilian life) and raised in both chichi Vail, Colo., and bucolic New Hampshire.

The timing is fortuitous for American medal hopes in Sochi. Shiffrin steps into the Olympic limelight just as the glamorous but injured Lindsey Vonn steps out of it. Shiffrin is a favorite in the slalom, in which skiers take two runs down an icy course lined with about 70 tightly packed gates in about 55 seconds. The lowest combined time wins. She'll also run the longer, faster giant slalom, where her times have been improving rapidly. These are called the technical events as opposed to the speed events, which include the downhill, super-G and super combined.

Even without Vonn, the Americans look like medalists in a number of Alpine events. Julia Mancuso, 29, already owns three Olympic medals, including gold in the GS. She has a habit of showing up on the podium at truly big races. On the men's side, Ted Ligety is the reigning GS champion, and five-time medalist Bode Miller, back from injury, is capable of astounding feats on skis in any race.

Like any other prodigy, Shiffrin has been practicing most of her life, dedicated to the music of perfect turns. "Every day I step on skis, I'm hoping to improve something. So I can honestly say that I'm getting faster. That's what gives me the most confidence in my races," she says. That was evident at a recent slalom in Flachau, Austria, where she led the field by almost a full second after the first run--an unthinkable margin in a nanosecond-minded sport. More recently, Shiffrin has been working hard at getting a quicker start and running the first couple of gates faster. "There are 15 girls who could crush me if I take my foot off the gas," she says. But that isn't likely to happen. One other thing: the slalom at Sochi takes place at night. Better get some sleep, ladies.








Ski Like A Medalist
Bill Saporito Jan. 31, 2014

When the Games are gone, world-class slopes open up to the rest of us

It’s been a so-so year for snow in the far west of North America. But you wouldn’t know that at British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb, site of the 2010 Games. Anxiety about snowfall prompted planners to expand Whistler’s snowmaking coverage to 8,000 acres (3,240 hectares). As a result, the resort boasted a 50-in. (127 cm) base in late January.

Similar concerns have dogged Sochi, which like Vancouver is near the coast and is sometimes warm in midwinter. So organizers took steps that all but guarantee snow for this year’s Games; the snowmakers have been busy all season. Rosa Khutor is the main ski resort in Krasnaya Polyana, the mountain town above Sochi where about half of the Olympic events will be held. It’s decked out like a kitschy Austrian alpine hamlet except for the outdoor borscht bar smack in the middle of the resort, staffed by uniformed Cossacks serving salo (salted hog fat) and a Slavic moonshine so authentic, it could unfreeze an engine block.

The Russians hope the Games will put Rosa Khutor on the winter tourism map. It’s spanking new but far smaller than the average European ski resort, with only about 43 miles (70 km) of trails. Italy’s Sestriere, site of the 2006 Games, can link skiers to six other resorts (one in France) and 250 miles (400 km) of runs in a region called the Milky Way; the Salt Lake City region, home to the 2002 Games, offers access to 11 ski areas.


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