With just under a year to go before Sochi hosts the XXIInd Winter Games — or are the they Ist Spring Games? — the summer resort city between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains still is a hyperactive hard-hat zone filled with cranes, scaffolding, trucks, cement mixers, earth movers, jackhammers, and 70,000 laborers as Russia prepares to stage the most expensive Games ever.
The grand scale of the undertaking, which President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman likened to the reconstruction of the nation’s cities after World War II, is unprecedented in Olympic history. As opposed to rebuilding Stalingrad out of rubble, putting on the Winter Games in the first subtropical setting has meant transforming a down-at-the-heels Soviet summer getaway where Stalin came for sun, sand, and salt water into a winter playground tucked between unstable regions of the country.
The cost — $51 billion and counting, quadruple the original estimate — is staggering. Beijing spent $42 billion on the lavish 2008 Summer Olympics and Vancouver only $6 billion on the Winter Games three years ago.
The Sochi price tag, though, includes not only more than a dozen venues in separate coastal and mountain complexes but also 20,000 new hotel rooms plus new roads, bridges, and tunnels, a renovated airport, expanded and improved railways, and a new light metro as well as modernized energy and sewage-treatment systems and an updated and expanded telecommunications network for the region.
“You cannot just take the cost of this tunnel and the train and the road into the cost of the Games,” reckoned International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. “Because this tunnel and the train and the road are not meant for two weeks of competition. They are meant for generations to last.”
The government — essentially meaning Putin — envisions Sochi as a magnet for everything from Formula 1 auto racing to a training center for the national soccer team to the G8 summit, which will be held there next year.
“There is no doubt that the Games will put Sochi on the map,” predicted organizing chief Dmitry Chernyshenko.
They also would refute what skeptics dismissed as a Putinesque pipe dream six years ago when he went to Guatemala City and sweet-talked a majority of International Olympic Committee members into envisioning ice castles and beach umbrellas in the same five-ringed fantasy.
While Pyeongchang, the South Korean resort that narrowly lost the 2010 bid to Vancouver and will host in 2018, was the clear favorite, Sochi had two things going for it. The country most synonymous with ice and snow and frostbite never had hosted the Winter Games. And Putin, whose strongman side wasn’t nearly as obvious then as it would become, personally guaranteed that he would print as many rubles as necessary to get everything from massive five-star hotels to the planet’s longest bobsled track up and running.
“Putin being here was very important,” IOC member Jean-Claude Killy, the former Olympic skiing champion, said after Sochi had outpolled Pyeongchang, 51-47, on the second ballot. “He worked very hard at it. He was nice. He spoke French — he never speaks French. He spoke English — he never speaks English. The Putin charisma can explain four votes.”
Same old problemsHosting the Olympics was a planetary coup for the Motherland and, Chernyshenko predicted, it would “help Russia transition as a young democracy.”
It was the Soviet Union, little more than a decade from disintegration, that staged the Moscow Games in 1980 that were diminished by the US-led boycott and deprived of the party atmosphere that the Kremlin bosses hoped would erase their country’s gray and repressive image.
Russia may not yet be recognizable as a democracy and its preparations have been marked by several holdovers from the socialist days: soaring costs, cronyism, incompetence, heavy security, and alleged exploitation of labor. After interviewing dozens of migrant workers from former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia, Human Rights Watch this month charged that they had been forced to work long hours on construction sites with few if any days off and had been cheated out of their wages.
Even so, the construction costs have risen so much that a disgusted Putin recently dismissed Olympic committee vice president Akhmed Bilalov after finding that the ski jumps still were unfinished two years after the target date.
“The main thing is that no one steals anything so there are no unexplained increases in costs,” Putin observed wryly.
Half of the cash is coming from public coffers and half from state-run firms run by “kapitalist” tycoons who owe their jobs to the president, who has put his personal imprint on these Olympics like no other head of state.
“This really is his Games,” said Chernyshenko, “because he recognized the power of these Games, the greatest-ever catalyst to accelerate positive change.”
Unpredictable weatherBesides serving as a showcase for Russian imagination, these Olympics are seen by the hosts as a priceless opportunity to prove that the country can pull off a climate-defying coup that even its inventive Chinese neighbors haven’t yet managed: transforming summer into winter.
What the organizers have found, though, is that Mother Nature tends to be whimsical in a region where less than 30 miles separate the sea from the mountains.
Last year’s World Cup event for the Alpine skiers had to be truncated amid what the international federation called “an assortment of weather offerings, all with a coastal character.” The first day of downhill training was so warm that only a few competitors bothered. The second day was canceled after 8 inches of snow fell. The race itself was held in fog so thick that the last 10 starters didn’t get to compete. After an additional 3 inches of snow gave the surface the consistency of sand, the subsequent super combined had to canceled.
This month’s World Cup snowboard slopestyle event was scrubbed for lack of snow. Then for Saturday’s World Cup freestyle halfpipe, heavy rain in the morning turned to heavy snow in the afternoon. After Vancouver’s often-slurpy conditions at a higher latitude, few observers expected better from a site where the average daytime winter temperature is 52 degrees.
“The weather in the mountains is always unpredictable,” Rogge said this month. “There can be too much snow or too little snow; we have seen it in the previous Games. But, you know, if there is such a circumstance, then the organizers will react with the Plan B.”
One way or another, the organizers are guaranteeing snow for the Games, from the mini-mountains of white stuff they’ll be stockpiling beneath insulated coverings or will be making with 400 machines drawing water from two reservoirs near the Rosa Khutor venue.
Until then, they will be obsessed with getting everything finished and functional. While the closeness of the ski slopes to the city presents climatological challenges, it makes for a decidedly more convenient commute than was presented by Vancouver or by Turin in 2006, with media and spectators able to cover the distance by light rail.
“The site is very compact, it’s high-quality and is situated in beautiful surroundings,” observed Rogge.
The Olympic Village, the 40,000-seat stadium, and all of the ice venues in the circular coastal park, including both hockey arenas (the 12,000-seat Bolshoi Ice Dome and 7,000-seat Shayba Arena), the 12,000-seat Iceberg Skating Palace, the 8,000-seat Adler speedskating oval, and the 3,000-seat Ice Cube curling center, are within walking distance.
In some cases, though, the organizers had to scramble to get venues ready for their dress rehearsal. Just a few days before this weekend’s World Cup finale in bobsledding and skeleton, the track was all but unusable.
“There’s actual concrete in the outrun,” said US sledder Noelle Pikus-Pace. “It just isn’t ready for us to slide. The track is a mess.”
The track was ready in time, though, and Pikus-Pace and teammate Katie Uhlaender finished 1-2.
The organizers are taking the traditional “skoro budet” (“soon it will be)” attitude. There’s still nearly a year to go before the flame has to be lit down by the seashore, and there will be no shortage of rubles available to finish things up. These are Putin’s Games, after all.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.