Putin Sent a Syria Apologist to Carry the Olympic Flag

Sure, not everything surrounding the Sochi Olympics has gone smoothly: The fifth Olympic ring failed to open during the opening ceremony, and there is the small matter of stray dogs and toxic water in the city's hotels. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to make a political point, you've got to give him credit -- he nails it.

After Putin stepped to the microphone to declare that the Winter Olympics had begun, eight famous Russians carried the Olympic flag into the stadium. Most of them were well-known figures: There was the soprano singer Anna Netrebko, for example, and Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. But there was one surprise: Journalist Anastasia Popova, who made her name cheerleading for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. (She's the third woman from the front in the photo above.)

Popova's team first traveled to Syria in August 2011 to film a documentary for the channel Russia 24. In an interview following her trip, she played down the extent of the unrest and praised the government for "respond[ing] to the peaceful demands" of the protesters, by changing laws and holding elections.

"Despite all our attempts, we didn't manage to find the thousands-strong demonstrations against the government so often talked about by the Western media," she said. (When she arrived in the country, the Syrian government was in the midst of its first bloody assaults on the cities of Homs and Hama.)

More recently, Popova's work has supported the Assad regime's claim that it was the rebels, not the army, that used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. She claimed in April to have been near the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the northern town of Khan al-Assal and said that she had compiled eyewitness accounts blaming the rebels for the strike.

U.N. officials, however, said the short videos she submitted as evidence were inconclusive. "It's like two seconds each picture," U.N. high commissioner for disarmament Angela Kane told Inner City Press.

Honoring Popova by allowing her to carry the Olympic flag is a striking statement about where Russia stands on Syria. But given some of the dismal coverage of Sochi so far, perhaps Putin would have been better served by letting her report on the Olympics.

Anastasia Popova


Meet the U.S. Army’s Team of Crack Olympic Bobsledders

As a teenager, Mike Kohn dreamt being both a soldier and professional athlete. He's found an unusual way of combining the two. Kohn, now an Army officer, is in Sochi as a member of the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team.

On Friday, Kohn -- a lieutenant in the Army National Guard, a three-time Olympian, and the current coach of the U.S. team -- joined eight other soldiers for the start of the Winter Olympics. Of the 230 athletes the United States has sent to Sochi, nine are members of the Army: six competitors and three coaches. All nine will be competing or coaching in bobsled, skeleton, or luge, sports that involve shooting through a narrow half-pipe track at an incredibly high speed. Of the 14 men that make up the U.S. bobsledding team in Sochi, four are soldiers.

What makes a good bobsledder? Speed, strength, fearlessness, and, apparently, a military background.

American soldier-Olympians perform remarkably well in the Olympics. Of the 446 who have participated since 1948, 111 have won medals. "It's the discipline, willingness to work hard. They've just gotten it down," WCAP Sports Specialist Mark Dunivan told Foreign Policy. At Sochi, the American army bobsledders will be competing against members of the German and Russian militaries.

The soldier-athletes owe their Olympic training to the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which launched in 1997 and currently focuses on 15 sports, four of which are winter disciplines. In the 2012 London Summer Olympics, soldier-athletes competed in wrestling, shooting, track and field, and modern pentathlon -- none of which are particularly surprising for a group of service members.

But bobsledding? It's perhaps not as strange as it sounds. For one, you have to be a good team player. "You have to be in sync in getting into the sled, in sync in pushing," Dunivan told FP. "Being soldiers you have to adapt to different personalities, different people".

While bobsledding doesn't deliver quite the rush of getting shot at, the sport still includes what Kohn called the "danger aspect," the predictable thrill of flirting with death and living to tell the tale. Bobsleds can achieve up to 90 mph and crashes are common. During the 2010 Vancouver, Olympics Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia died in a luge training accident.

Moreover, bobsledding is a sport that doesn't require a great deal of finesse. Kohn called it a "blue collar sport" despite the fact that sleds aren't cheap  -- this year's model, for instance, is designed by luxury carmaker BMW and cost an undisclosed sum of money to build. "It's not tennis, it's not golf," Kohn told FP. Athleticism is crucial, with bobsledders having to be "strong, powerful, fast," the basic requirements of a good soldier.

Many WCAP athletes who join the program come with backgrounds in football or track and field. Moreover, switching to bobsled from other sports is a fairly common phenomenon. The former Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones made this year's women's team. Herschel Walker, the former running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982, competed in bobsled in the 1992 Olympic Games.

But Kohn, who said he had "more fun, more honor, more reward in going to the Olympic game as a soldier-athlete for [his] nation" than he would have had in the NFL, argued soldier-athletes have another crucial advantage. There is more pressure to win. The soldiers represent more than just themselves and their nation, but "every soldier out there." Kohn called it a "bigger responsibility," and said that "there is no greater honor than to be a soldier-Olympian."

Olympic sliding sports have a strong roster of military alumni. Since the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo,  Army athletes and coaches in bobsled and luge participated in 11 games, including Sochi. In the late 1960s and 1970s the U.S. Navy bobsled team led by Lt. Paul Lamey was a powerhouse on the track, winning several consecutive national and North American titles and competing in World Championships and two Olympic games. The six-man team consisted of three members elite Navy SEALs and inspired the documentary "Blue on Ice."

American soldier-Olympians perform remarkably well in the Olympics. Of the 446 who have participated, 111 won medals. "It's the discipline, willingness to work hard. They've just gotten it down," Dunivan told FP. At Sochi, the American army bobsledders will be competing against members of the German and Russian militaries.

Despite all their sporting careers, WCAP trainees are still soldiers. "All the athletes maintain their military skills and careers as well," Cpt. Scott Christie, the commander of the WCAP program, told FP. Among this year's Olympic team there are engineers, a member of the infantry, and a military intelligence officer. Kohn said that after they return from Sochi, the Olympians will be going back to their army jobs and schools. In exchange for their training, WCAP athletes participate in the army's recruiting program, primarily as promoters.

And while the army allows most WCAP trainees to treat sport as their full-time job, the occasional soldier-athlete does get deployed overseas. And sometimes they even choose to do so. After participating in the Vancouver olympics, Sgt. John Napier, who is not on the Sochi roster, asked for a deployment and was sent to Afghanistan. "I just kept asking to go because I couldn't get away from the guilt of being here while other guys were over there fighting," Napier told the New York Times in 2010.

Capt. Chris Fogt, a brakeman, was deployed to Iraq as a military intelligence officer right after his Olympic performance in Vancouver in 2010. Kohn, the coach, remarked that though Fogt had to work on his sprinting after he returned from Iraq -- deployment training involves more endurance elements -- he "got in, got off the plane, got into a bobsled, didn't miss a beat."

Ryan Pierse/Getty Images