As London wraps up, Sochi prepares for Olympics
The idea of holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi once seemed as
much of a long shot as a gold medal for Jamaica’s bobsledders – a
city that few outside Russia had ever heard of, in a country
notorious for inefficient construction, corruption, and a byzantine
But when Sochi won the right to host the 2014 Games five years
ago, boosted by President Vladimir Putin’s vigorous support, a vast
transformation began. When London ends its own Olympics on Sunday,
attention will turn to a region grappling with challenges as
daunting as London’s but much different.
Although Sochi has been a popular Black Sea resort since Soviet
times – its palm-fringed beaches framed by soaring, snow-capped
mountains – it had little of the infrastructure needed for hordes
of Olympic fans and squadrons of athletes.
Some 20,000 hotel rooms are being built, supplementing Soviet
spa complexes that mimic ancient Roman and Greek buildings – one of
the city’s most appealing idiosyncrasies.
The mountains had a few modest ski areas but there was nothing
that matched an international standard. Every competition venue has
had to be built from scratch.
Transport was a huge concern. Wedged between the mountains and
the sea, Sochi in places was basically a single road wide, and only
one road connected the seacoast area with the mountains. More than
350 kilometers (220 miles) of new roads and 200 kilometers (125
miles) of railway are being built to keep gridlock at bay.
The cost of all this is staggering. Putin said $30 billion
((euro) 24.5 billion) will be spent developing the region,
including the cost of the games.
Although many have complained that the central stadium and
hotels are behind schedule, International Olympic Committee
officials overall have praised Russia’s ability to meet the
A tour of the area this week showed a region caught between its
past and future. The city’s main thoroughfare was clogged with
traffic. Disco beats and mangled karaoke poured out of cafes, men
in tank tops nursed beers and sunbaked women juggled children on
But a new express train now connects the city with a modern new
airport and workers are diligently battling rocky terrain to lay
another railroad and a highway through the mountains to the
snow-sports cluster 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of town.
The IOC’s standards have forced Russian construction companies,
typically plagued by inefficiency and low quality standards, to
take safety and green technology seriously into account for the
Private investment in the region, on the rise after the 1990s,
got a second wind after the Olympics were announced in 2007. Rosa
Khutor, the new ski resort where most of the downhill events will
take place, was started as a $150 million project as early as 2003.
After the Olympics were announced, that figure ballooned to $2
billion for 100 kilometers (60 miles) of ski trails.
”We’re creating a mental shift and changing attitudes toward
people with disabilities, we’re creating a new standard in
environmentally-friendly construction and we’re creating the
volunteerism culture that did not exist in our country before,”
Dmitri Chernyshenko, president and chief executive of the Sochi
organizing committee, said in an interview with AP at the London
But despite the breakneck pace of construction, critics question
whether the city can build an entire Olympic complex and the
infrastructure it requires from scratch without doing too much
Environmental groups have charged that the railroad and highway
to the Krasnaya Polyana ski area have done untold damage to the
ecology of nearby Mzymta River. According to the World Wildlife
Fund, construction of the railroad and highway began after the
companies involved rushed through an ecological survey in just two
Safety has been another major concern, with Sochi near other
parts of the Caucasus that have been plagued by Islamic insurgents
Recently, Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Krasnodar
region that includes Sochi, stirred up controversy by calling for
Cossacks to come to Sochi to prevent migrants from flooding the
region. While the Cossacks, who formed a feared military force in
the time of the czars, will be unarmed, critics warned that the
move could fuel ethnic tensions and hate crimes against mostly
dark-complexioned Muslim migrants.
The Sochi Olympics have also been plagued by allegations of
corruption and construction delays. The Russian daily Izvestia
reported Thursday that court cases were being opened against the
two subcontractors responsible for the bobsled track and the
central stadium, which will be used for the opening ceremony. The
two companies are charged with exceeding their estimated
Finally, the residents of Sochi themselves openly worry that
despite Sochi’s rapid development, the city will be abandoned after
the games because the growth is unsustainable.
”Maintenance and technical upkeep (of these venues) is very
expensive. It’s possible that it will all fall into decay,” said
Sergei Dotsenko, Sochi resident and psychiatrist. ”These Olympic
Games take a lot of money from the (state) budget, and that money
won’t be given back. It’s just a question of prestige.”
Associated Press writer Stephen Wilson in London contributed to