Wave of pleasure: ski cross World Cup 2013 competitors enjoy the Sochi vibe ahead of the Games. Source: Press photo
Sitting in the Olympic Stadium in Sochi, you can look right and admire the sparkling Black Sea or left to take in the majesty of the snow-capped Caucasus mountains.
If you thought hosting London 2012 in a post-industrial wasteland was a challenge, try next year’s Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in the sub-tropics. Palm trees adorn the balmy Olympic park, while, inland, 450,000 cubic metres of snow lie in storage in case the sun melts the white stuff on the slopes when the Games get under way on February 7.
Few facilities existed when President Putin charmed International Olympic Committee delegates in 2007 to win the Games for Sochi, defeating South Korea and Austria. The location – a relatively undeveloped part of southern Russia with a climate similar to the south of France – helps explain why Sochi is about to be the most expensive Olympics in history.
Mr. Putin promised to spend $12bn (£7.7bn) to make Sochi ready. Instead, the budget has come in at $46bn, mostly funded by the government or state-run companies, overtaking the estimated $44bn spent on Beijing 2008 and dwarfing the £8.92bn price tag for London. The costs of London, too, ballooned far above the original projected budget of just £2.4bn.
Sochi posed plenty of engineering challenges not faced by London or the previous winter host, Vancouver, which suffered serious transport and other infrastructure problems at the start of competition, which were subsequently overcome. Sochi’s Olympic Park used to be a swamp, and roads had to be built to remote locations before facilities could be built. A new railway provides a 30-minute link between the two competition zones, the Coastal Cluster and the Mountain Cluster, and organisers say Sochi will be the most compact Winter Games ever staged.
Click to enlarge the infographics. Drawing by Gaia Russo
All the arenas in the Coastal Cluster are within walking distance of each other while athletes will live just five minutes’ away in the Olympic Village. A separate Olympic Village in the Mountain Cluster, which will host ski, snowboard and bobsleigh events, is 15 minutes from competition venues.
If the world’s biggest country has the dubious distinction of hosting the world’s most expensive Olympics, then another number gives a nostalgic tinge to the occasion for Russians. The Sochi Games is the 22nd Winter Olympiad, echoing the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which was the 22nd Summer Olympiad. But the return of the Olympic flame is to a different country, one that sees Sochi as the opportunity to present the modern face of Russia to the world. Sochi’s slogan – Hot, Cool, Yours – seeks to convey the energy, style and openness of this evolving Russia, less than 25 years since the collapse of Communism.
However, Russia’s chronic problems with corruption have led to intense speculation over the amount of construction funds diverted into offshore bank accounts. Embezzlement being a secretive business, however, it’s hard to put any credible figure on it.
Just as in London, legacy is a major challenge for Sochi – the thorny question of what to do with the 11 competition venues once the Games are over. Its biggest arena, the 40,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium, will stage no sport but host only the opening and closing ceremonies and medal presentations.
6 thousand athletes and team members are expected to attend the Games in Sochi
98 gold medals in total will be awarded during the competition
85 countries are planning to send teams to compete
12 new events have been added to the Sochi programme since the 2010 Winter Olympics
That would have been unthinkable for London’s frugal planners, but a post-Olympics life has been planned for the $63m stadium named after Mount Fisht, which is visible through the arena’s transparent roof. It will be a training ground and match venue for Russia’s national football team, and will host games at the 2018 World Cup.
Another plan to scatter some Olympic stardust by dismantling three of Sochi’s arenas after the Games and relocating them to other Russian cities appears to be foundering. Officials could not agree where the venues should go and they are now likely to stay in Sochi, with the only guide for their future being a vague proposal from Mr Putin to set up an elite winter sports academy for children. The mountain venues are planned to become ski resorts.
Whatever decisions are made about the future of the facilities, it can be said that the Olympics provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Sochi to improve its infrastructure and transform its creaking Soviet-era legacy of tourism. The city had a long history as a holiday destination in Soviet times, but more recently has lost out to Europe’s ski resorts and the beaches of cheaper Mediterranean rivals. The Olympics are its shop window to the world, an opportunity to attract new tourist markets and to convince Russians to take a fresh look at what it has to offer as a domestic holiday destination. A successful outcome to the Games may help to determine its future prosperity for decades to come.
Sochi and London share an intriguing parallel. A Levada Centre poll last month found 65 percent of Russians thought Sochi was a waste of money; 64 percent of Britons told a BBC poll shortly before London 2012 that the Olympics were too expensive.
However, four months after London 2012 ended, a total of four-fifths of Britons considered them to be good value. That’s an achievement Sochi 2014 will do well to match.
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