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HARPER: Putin is the real story of these Winter Games

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is the one who's on center stage at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

All you had to see was the team photo with the Russian gold medal winners of the team figure skating event where he was the man in the center of the picture after the victory.

Much of the media still have failed to grasp exactly who Mr. Putin is. Instead, journalists make fun of the problems at the hotels, including poorly built bathrooms and undrinkable water. I won't even touch NBC's Bob Costas' ridiculous comment that Mr. Putin has been a "peacemaker" in Syria and Iran and his colleague Meredith Vieira's offensive description about the end of the Soviet Union as "a bittersweet moment."

Fortunately, a few news organizations have been spot on about Mr. Putin and these Olympics. Brett Forrest of ESPN: The Magazine, did one of the best jobs of homing in on Mr. Putin in an article titled "Monopoly Games." The subheadline said it all: "No one has lorded over an Olympics like Vladimir Putin."

Mr. Forrest wrote: "These are Putin's Games, after all, a product of the ego, built by blunt command. The command is to construct a stage on which the style of Putin's 'managed democracy' will enlighten the world."

Let me review Mr. Putin's resume. Before he entered politics, he worked as a spy for the Soviet Union. He served as president of Russia from 2000 to 2008 and took a four-year respite from the job, which was enforced by law, to become prime minister — a position from which he still ran the country. Despite massive protests, he was elected in 2012 as president for six years and can serve another six-year term because the law on term limits was nixed. At 61, he already has served longer than all seven of the former Soviet leaders, except Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev, whom he will pass relatively soon.

The gulags no longer exist, but the prisons do. Mr. Putin has sent his political opponents there. Corruption is rampant. The 2014 Winter Games will be the most expensive in history at $50 billion — much of the money reportedly going to insider construction deals and graft. For example, Norwegian officials said the country intends to submit a plan for the next Winter Games priced at $5 billion.

In The Daily Beast, former chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov launched a blistering attack against Mr. Putin and his cronies. "Corruption is the overriding principle of Putin's 14 years in power and looting the Russian treasury and the Russian people is itself the goal," Mr. Kasparov wrote.

To underline the continuing economic disparities in Russia, The New York Times found a town just a few miles away from Sochi that looked as though it remained part of the Soviet system.

Sarah Lyall reported about a small village, Kazachy Brod. "For the last five years, construction trucks have rumbled day and night through the street that bisects the village, on what used to be a gravel road but was paved over for Olympic building purposes. The village has gone without fresh water since 2008, ever since its drinking wells were wrecked by the vast new waste dump" for the Olympics, she wrote.

The village of 200 people will receive virtually none of the economic benefits from Mr. Putin's Olympics. But he is on center stage for the world to see him rather than helping the poor and downtrodden in small Russian towns. That's the way he operates.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at Twitter: @charper51

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