"If we do poorly, it will be the failure of the big illusion... And it can bury this regime."

There are issues in Russia far more important than Sochi. Gudkov mentions education, road construction, health care. But Putin, he says, has persuaded those who suffer most acutely from society’s shortcomings to look to the Olympics for salvation. “People are waiting for a miracle,” Gudkov says. “The Russian president has been building a big illusion that there are enemies all around us. Putin is considered to be a very strong leader. And because we are strong, we will win these Games.”

But there is a flip side that will challenge Putin, Gudkov believes. “If we do poorly, it will be the failure of the big illusion. People will need someone to blame. And it can bury this regime.”

Gudkov is perhaps too hopeful. Putin has grown crafty through his years in power, manipulating perceptions with surprising timing and deftness. Without warning, in late December, Putin freed Russia’s three most celebrated prisoners, two members of the punk collective Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once Russia’s richest man. The amnesty was something less than it appeared to be. All three prisoners were due for release within months. No matter. This was a brilliant move. Now there will be no “Free Pussy Riot” placards in Sochi, no interviews on NBC Sports with Khodorkovsky’s lawyers. Putin scored points as the compassionate leader, Vladimir the Kind, proving that it’s easy to be merciful, if at first you are without mercy.