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Column: For Putin's supposed new Russia, the Sochi Olympics aren't mere fun and games

The Olympic Games, a washing powder for autocrats everywhere. Got a spotty record on human rights? Is your government's repression of homosexuals, political opponents, activists of all stripes, independent media and other innocents muddying its reputation? Host the games! Guaranteed, at least temporarily, to help divert attention from those pesky stains.

And it works, to an extent.

Just watch: For the next two weeks, daredevil athletes hurling themselves down snowy slopes and speeding on hard ice will generate most of the headlines from the winter games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, their spectacular feats and disappointments largely drowning out criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the way his government operates and has prepared this Olympic sleight of hand.

Critics? What critics? Presto! Now you hear them, now you don't. Or, to be more accurate, Putin is betting that we will watch the likes of Yuna Kim attempting to figure-skate again to Olympic gold rather than pay too much heed to the raft of complainers, like the Russian environmentalists who despite much harassment exposed illegal landfills and the poisoning and paving of waters and landscapes in Olympic-related construction.

The games' four-year cycle guarantees human drama, because their rarity puts intense pressure on the athletes to perform. For many of them, Sochi will be their now-or-never moment to make a mark. Those high stakes, the tingling danger of winter sports and the natural beauty of the Caucasus Mountains will make for fabulous television. And the combination of all of those things is why the Olympic Games are such an irresistible force in the competition for our short attention spans.

But as we tune in for bobsledding, luge and other thrills, it is important that we aren't the ones being taken for a ride. As we zero in on the brilliance of individual athletes, we must not neglect the bigger picture of how countries and governments, some of them very unsavory, hijack the global reach and upbeat, youthful and vigorous vibe of these sporting mega-events to remake their image.

Tiny Qatar is spending beyond all rhyme and reason on the 2022 soccer World Cup to put itself on our collective radar. Brazil is counting on its World Cup this June and the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro to demonstrate that it is a can-do economic force of the future, not just a nice place for cocktails with the girl, or boy, from Ipanema.

And to give the world a warmer and fuzzier glow about the "new Russia," when much its behavior still smacks disturbingly of the old Cold War one, Putin's government signed off on $51 billion of spending in Sochi, an obscene new record of Olympic lavishness, standing up stadiums on swampland and driving roads and rail lines through pristine valleys. Billions more are going on the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

Although the International Olympic Committee's new president, Thomas Bach, protested this week that politicians should not use the games to score points, the IOC has long enabled them to do so. So, too, has World Cup organizer FIFA.

The IOC rewarded the iron fists of South Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan and his military cronies by awarding the 1988 summer games to Seoul. The Beijing Olympics 20 years later came despite China's appalling human rights record and contested rule of Tibet.

Kremlin critics Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist assassinated in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building, and Alexander Litvinenko, the former spy who died an agonizing death in exile in London after drinking poisoned tea, hadn't been dead a year when the IOC awarded the winter games to Sochi.

The "new" Russia had also fought two brutal wars in Chechnya by then and started to alarm its energy-dependent neighbors in Europe with the threat of cuts to Russian exports of natural gas. So Bach is being hopelessly naive or willfully blind to pretend now that the Sochi Olympics can exist in a political vacuum against all this background.

There are good arguments for Sochi as an Olympic venue. Having won more than 300 winter games medals, either in the colors of the Soviet Union or since its breakup in 1991, Russian athletes more than earned this opportunity to compete on home soil.

Because of its geographical proximity to violent insurgencies further east in the Caucasus, Sochi might make a tempting target for Islamic terrorists. But that doesn't make it a wrong choice, just a riskier one. Bach is right to argue that surrendering to the threat of terror "is the last thing we all want to do."

But however these games turn out, do remember this: The Sochi Olympics are much more than mere fun and games.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester