The Russian Black sea city of Sochi, with ski resort Krasnaya Polyana, is to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The best and most expensive facilities in Winter Olympic history are under construction and the media spotlight will be on them for the next four years.
After Vancouver things got off to an explosive start. Following the lamentable performance of the Russian team, President Dimitri Medevedev publicly demanded the resignation of Leonid Tiagatchev, the head of the Russian Winter Olympic Committee, and got it in order. Moscow's Olympic results were the worst ever: they won 28 medals in 2006, expected 30-plus this time but only got 15. On top of that Tiagatchev used to be the downhill skiing coach to sports-mad, former President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has a holiday home in Sochi. He has been deeply involved in this 10-billion-dollar Winter Olympics project - "the most expensive Winter Olympics ever".
Sochi has to start from scratch, beginning with a complete state-of-the-art sewerage system. As President Medvedev said at the beginning of the year, "The first task is the development of the city of Sochi, the creation of a modern, high-quality mountain climatic resort . . . Second we need to create a world-class sports infrastructure." Add to that extending and modernising the port and upgrading the 1500-kilometre rail link to Moscow into a high-speed line and it is not difficult to imagine that Sochi is going to cost a lot of money. In reality it is as much to do with the modernisation of Russia as the winter Olympics.
The Olympic project is in two parts or clusters 50 kilometres apart, to be linked by a new light railway; the journey will take half an hour. The ice skating facilities, including two ice hockey rinks, speed skating, a short track stadium, and a curling rink, along with the Olympic Stadium will be in Sochi by the Black Sea. The skiing, snowboarding, bobsleighing, and ski jumping events will all be up in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana.
An artificial island for offices and hotels is under construction in the harbour to be built in the shape of the Russian Federation. A new offshore docking facility will take cruise ships with up to 3000 passengers. The local airport has a new terminal and the runway is to be extended to 3.5 kilometres.
Russia is still emerging from the disastrous economic and social effects of 72 years of Soviet communism. In addition it is unusual for the host nation and its small neighbour Georgia, to have fought an old fashioned, knock down drag out war only two years ago, just a couple of hours from the site of the games. One of the motives for Russo-Georgian war, on the part of Russia at any rate, was to deal once and for all with Georgian agitation over secessionist Abkhazia next door, well before the games. As in China, the question of human rights will undoubtedly crop up.
An added environmental hurdle has recently surfaced: eco-groups are unhappy that the territory of the UNESCO World Heritage Site has been infringed to accommodate some of the facilities at Krasnaya Polyana. Prime Minister Putin has already conciliated them by moving the site of the bobsleigh track.
There is the residue of the Cold War and many in the West still regard Russia as the Soviet Union. The accumulated effect of all this is not likely to leave the Sochi Winter Olympics entirely unruffled.
Then there is the usual media game of "will it, wont it be ready on time?" It will. It always is. Even so the exceptionally difficult financial climate and the Russian stock market crash in 2008 have given reasonable cause to ask questions. However with no debt, their big foreign exchange reserves and with so much at stake the Russian government is unlikely to let anything stand in the way of the success of the 2014 games. Billionaire oligarchs and major government firms like Gazprom have been lent on to sponsor different activities.
Russia is changing at a dizzying speed, to the point where much commentary is out of date before it is printed. At least there is now little hesitation in bringing in the best foreign talent available to build the best possible facilities. There are of course difficulties and clashes but that is normal in any big construction project and Sochi is huge. Friction is even more likely when politics are omnipresent and the reputation of the nation is at stake.
At any rate there should be no repetition of the memorable exchange in communist times when the world authority on purpose-built ski resorts, Frenchman Laurent Chappis, was asked what he thought of a new Soviet ski resort. He replied, "The architect does not know which way North is, the scale of the plan, the snow cover, the prevailing wind or the contours." Instead of translating this broadside, the nervous interpreter pleaded "wouldn't it be better just to say that everything is okay? Why complicate life?"