Via the Daily Caller, a subplot worth following as the Games begin. No way, no how, no chance will NBC whitewash Russia’s treatment of gays; the network has more to fear from activists back home if it looks the other way at that than it does from Putin by zeroing in it. Expect multiple interstitial segments on the subject. (It’s even mentioned in the ostensible Putin “highlight reel” below, in fact.) What about the rest of his record, though — endemic corruption, sponsorship of the Assad war machine, protection for Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the UN, and assorted acts of general thuggishness? Ignoring him entirely and focusing on the events isn’t an option, and not just because, since Munich at least, Olympics coverage has always had a politics/news component built into it. These are “Putin’s Games” to an extent rarely achieved by other foreign leaders in hosting past Olympics. He dominates his country in a way that individual members of other authoritarian regimes, like China’s, seldom do. And he spent more money — lots more — than anyone else in history to make Sochi a testament to Russia’s, i.e. his, greatness.

The theme of these Games is simple: this is Putin’s pop-culture reassertion of Russia, a worldwide media-saturated insistence on its modern power and capacities, all done with a flash and a reach that no diplomatic summit could ever match. Dissident Russian voices such as Alexei Navalny, Masha Gessen, and the members of Pussy Riot all call these “Putin’s Games”; they talk of a pharaoh intent on building, and displaying, his pyramids. In fact, minus the tone of derision, when you talk to Russian officials close to Putin, the explanation for his motives is not so different. The level of risk may be greater than anyone quite imagined in 2007, but Putin wants to show that his country is capable of doing more than sucking oil and gas out of the ground and building a new Dubai in Russia. Putin, obviously, is no democrat. Not remotely. He is not interested in the contemporary requirements of human rights. He is not interested in empowering a real legislature or ceding true independence to the courts. Democracy is not his interest. Stability and development—those are his themes, first and last. And Putin regards any and all attempts from the West, from human-rights organizations, and from the press to call him to account on nearly any issue as acts of anti-Russian self-righteousness and hypocrisy. That is how he sees the world and his critics. He doesn’t hide it. He performs his contempt. That is part of the hard-man persona.

You can’t ignore him but you can whitewash him, especially if you’re worried that too much criticism might lead to problems with access that NBC’s counting on for its broadcasts. And the Syria bit below is, in fact, a whitewash: The reason Assad was in a position to use chemical weapons in the first place was because Putin, along with his friends in Tehran, has helped prop him up for the past three years. The WMD disarmament deal he brokered was a sham from the start, too. Assad isn’t disarming, just like we all knew he wouldn’t, but our dopey president had to play along once he realized there was no support in the U.S. for a attack on Syria to enforce his “red line.” Six months after that fiasco, Putin’s alleged peacemaking in the country now involves ignoring the fact that his close ally is dropping barrel bombs on Syrian cities. Maybe NBC will get to all of this in due time — the opening ceremony is happening as I write this but hasn’t even aired in the U.S. yet — but as I say, it’s a subplot worth following.

In lieu of an exit question, note the symbolism at the big opener in keeping with Putin’s theme of a return to Russian “greatness”: