The Russian resort town readies to host the world’s greatest hockey tournament, but questions concerning the long-term viability of its new arenas remain.
BY ALAN ADAMS
Somehow you have to think diehard communists Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin wouldn’t be amused if they could see how this faded Black Sea resort has been transformed from a “workers’ paradise” into the host city of the 2014 Olympic Games.
Sprawling 90 miles along the Black Sea coastline, Sochi has long been a palm tree destination point for Russians.
The first revellers were upper-crust socialites, who flocked en masse to the city’s subtropical climate and grand beachside spas and sanatoriums. When the czars were booted out after the 1919 civil war, Sochi became a playground for the Communist party brass and for “selected” workers whose dedication to the glories of the one-party socialist state were rewarded with a week at the beach.
In fact, it was one-time party boss Stalin who ordered a massive expansion in the 1930s, during which new roads, hotels and parks were built and the population rose from 17,000 to 72,000. Sochi became a favorite destination for Stalin and he had a massive villa built there in 1937.
Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the jewel of the Russian Riviera lost its shine. As Russians embraced capitalism, rather than splash their cash here, they headed to the beaches of Spain, Dubai and Morocco.
Fast-forward to July 2007, when the International Olympic Committee awarded Sochi the 2014 Winter Games. The city, long a favorite recreation spot of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was about to undergo a massive transformation.
Putin views the pride and prestige of hosting the Olympics to be priceless, in part because this is Russia’s first Winter Olympics and its first Games since Summer 1980 in Moscow, when the U.S. led a boycott to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
With Putin in charge, the cost of bringing Sochi up to Olympic standards was irrelevant. Russian officials have said the Games will be the most expensive yet, costing more than $50 billion, which would easily eclipse the $42 billion China spent on the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Rail stations were built, roads were paved, the airport was brought up to modern standards, hotels were modernized, condo towers erected and Olympic-caliber facilities were built. There are the 11 official Olympic sites, split between a coastal cluster, where the men and women’s hockey tournaments will be held, and a mountain cluster. The coastal cluster is 30 miles from the city of Sochi.
The main arena is the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome and the second is the 7,000-seat Shayba Arena. A concern, however, is Sochi has no real sports history and the long-term outlook for these buildings is questionable. The arenas, like most of the other venues, were the first for the city. What happens when the Olympics leave town remains to be seen. Sustainability is an issue.
And there are other questions. Is Sochi ready for the 7,000 athletes and officials, the 2,800 media members, the 3,000 IOC members and their guests, the 12,000 sponsors and their guests, along with the 73,000 workers?
The Russians say yes. Skeptics aren’t so sure. The naysayers point to how officials were unprepared when torrential rains hit Sochi in September. A state of emergency was declared as swollen rivers flooded parts of the city. Given Sochi has a humid subtropical climate, this could happen during the Games.
The Games also pose serious security concerns, largely because of neighboring Abkhazia, a disputed territory that has sought independence from Georgia, and the North Caucasus, a hotbed of Islamist insurgency. Security forces will be everywhere at the Games. Russian researchers recently uncovered an effort by the state security apparatus, the Federal Security Bureau, to monitor all telephone and Internet traffic in and out of Sochi during the period of the Games.
Another issue is Russia’s law that bans gay “propaganda” to minors, a move that caused outrage in sports circles. Brian Burke, who is a member of Team USA’s management team, has said he will speak his mind about discrimination against gay athletes and has all but challenged the Russians to stop him. Knowing this could become a hot-button issue once the Games start, Putin has reassured the IOC that security officials won’t punish those who speak out against this measure.
Putin wants to reposition Sochi as a tourism destination. Condo towers are in various states of completion and construction won’t pause during the Games, undoubtedly resulting in transportation snarls.
This isn’t to say Sochi doesn’t have its charms. The city is sandwiched between the Black Sea and the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains and it’s a pretty place with pleasurable weather. Sochi has an eccentric mix of Soviet lifestyle, trendy restaurants, Russian chanson music and traditional Caucasian food. The boardwalk cafes along the beaches are superb in terms of view. One minute you can be enjoying modern Sochi and the next you can buy pussy willows from babushkas on the street corner.
The city that used to be Russia’s version of hip is once again trying to become trendy. It will be fun to watch what happens after the Olympic flame goes out.