SOCHI, Russia — In the end, nothing could rain on Vladimir Putin’s Olympic parade. Not unfinished hotel rooms, suppressed dissent, overbearing law enforcement, or — so far, thank goodness — Islamic terrorists.
There were embarrassing blips (they shoot dogs, don’t they?) and deflating defeats (the futile final 52 minutes of the Russian men’s hockey quarterfinal loss to Finland will not soon be forgotten here). There were horrifying images of street violence in neighboring Ukraine, and the hideous sight of female members of the punk-activist group Pussy Riot being whipped by Cossacks, a rogue element inexplicably brought in to augment a security force already the size of the Army of the Potomac.
Once the Winter Games started, however, the focus was mostly on the athletes, rather than critics of the Russian president’s no-holds-barred approach to making Sochi into a national showcase. The venues were widely praised, though warm temperatures sometimes made snow conditions iffy. Things ran smoothly, thanks in part to a vast, English-speaking volunteer force that is still smiling, and entering the final day of competition, the host nation was leading the medal standings.
Part 2 of the Russian president’s plan is to make Sochi a destination, and not just for Russians who stopped coming here when the end of the communist police state opened up the rest of the world to them.
Putin wants you in Sochi. He’s already built it. But will you come?
The balmy climate and snow-capped Caucasus peaks are already mentioned in the tourism brochure. There will be other attractions.
The Adler Arena, a.k.a the Dutch Fort Knox after their gold medal blitz, will be converted from a speedskating arena to an exhibition center. Fisht Stadium, the site of the opening and closing ceremonies, will host the 2018 World Cup. The Alpine venues will be turned into a ski resort. The media center will become a massive shopping center, and that raises a red flag.
Greater Sochi has about 400,000 residents. It also has a mall with unclaimed store space in the city center, where most of the people live. Only a small percentage of the population lives near the coastal cluster and Olympic Park. Who’s going to shop there when there’s no international event to draw outsiders in?
Paul Beck, an eternal optimist and a lifelong builder of theme parks, believes the masses will come. He waves his hand at the teeming crowds gawking at the colorful towers and lining up at carousels of his latest creation, Sochi Park. “It’s not even finished, and they already love it.”
The sprawling Russia-themed park, or at least the fraction of it that was open, saw 10,000 visitors a day during the Olympics, where it was one of the few places you could go without a ticket or an invitation. Its premier attractions, extreme roller coasters that top 60 miles per hour, haven’t opened, and there is nothing but barren earth beyond the gates to special theme areas. But Beck is convinced people will line up to brave the Quantum Leap (“it’s hellishly frightening,” said one of his aides. “I wouldn’t go on it.”) or the Firebird (a free-fall so long that you’ll have time to calculate 65 meters in feet.), and everything is supposed to be fully operational by July.
Speaking of deadlines, mark Oct. 12 on your calendar. Russia will host the Formula 1 Grand Prix that day, assuming workers can finish the stadium, pave the finish line, and finish off the track by then. And why not? The theme park went from mostly wetland to almost Disneyland in nine months.
Can it all work? Alexander Valov, whose site, blogsochi.ru, has become required reading for anyone trying to learn what the state-run press won’t tell you, has his doubts.
In Soviet times, 5 million tourists would come to Sochi. In Russia, the estimate is 2 million, he said, but it has dropped by 15 percent each year, as people fled the discomfort — frequent energy outages, traffic jams — caused by the Olympic construction.
“Even if they fill the convention center, there’s only about a month’s worth of conventions,” Valov said. “One G8 meeting. One Formula 1 weekend. A mall no one needs. It’s not enough.”
Don’t tell that to Putin. The Kremlin pooh-poohed a report by opposition leaders that suggested $30 billion of the $51 billion spent on Sochi was stolen. The official line was that most of the money went into infrastructure needed to make the Black Sea coast as nice as Nice. So the plan can’t fail.
But the problem is deeper. The Olympics showed that Russia does Big well. It’s the little things that don’t always work.
Take the “Ring of Steel” security system that skeptics questioned. Bolstered by zeppelins, brightly colored helicopters, legions of smiling security staff in magenta uniforms, and a good chunk of the Black Sea Fleet, law and order Russian-style kept big-time troublemakers at bay.
But poked in the side by a few women in neon ski-masks, Russian law enforcement couldn’t help showing its overbearing side.
The smooth way the Games went off made ordinary Russians — far more of whom are proud of Sochi than you’d think, given how poorly they live and how much was spent — bristle when they heard the words Potemkin Olympics.
But away from the glistening new hotels and palm tree-lined seafront, Sochi is pockmarked with half-finished apartment buildings that have gone fallow. An impressive network of roads and railways was built to connect Sochi with the coastal and Alpine Olympic clusters. But there’s a soft underbelly. For example, one road project was supposed to include gas lines to local residences. The pipes were buried under the road, but the gas never flowed because of leaks. The only fix would be to dig up the road, or leave the residents without gas. Guess which option was chosen.
Fixing this stuff is hard in Putin’s Russia. Politics and business interests are welded together. Regional leaders have a free hand as long as they remain loyal to the Kremlin and keep order in their house. Whistleblowers are ignored or socked away in prison.
At the top of the chain is Putin’s determination to personally raise Russia’s prestige. These Olympics were going to come off, come hell or high water.
High water may be coming, by the way.
The Olympic venues, massive concrete buildings, have been built on a foundation of muck that is below the level of the Black Sea. The construction has clogged the rivers that used to carry the sediment that formed the beach that holds the sea back. The Olympic builders, spurred on by Putin’s deadlines, ignored the pleas of residents and environmentalists for feasibility studies and public debate.
Alik Le, who headed a group whose entreaties were tossed aside, acknowledged that dire forecasts of imminent flooding might be a bit over the top. But if natural erosion of that barrier is allowed to continue, he said, a few big storms could throw waves over the top, and leave the Olympic Park in the drink.
“As they say, the holiday ended and all that was left was the hangover,” he said.