The 2014 Winter Olympic Games will cost more than all previous Winter Olympics put together. But behind the glamour and cheerful press appearances of Vladimir Putin, lurks a darker story Russian authorities would rather conceal
The Games in Sochi, Russia will be remarkable. Trumpeted by the Organising Committee as the most compact, green and advanced Winter Olympics ever, they have been condemned by critics as the most corrupt, expensive and environmentally destructive. Over the past seven years, all the facilities have been built from scratch.
No other Olympic bid book – the document that describes in detail how a candidate city plans to stage the Games – will have been as thick as Sochi’s. The cost would be US$12 billion, Putin announced in 2007, a sum that made headlines at the time. Never before had so much money been spent on Winter Olympics. But then neither had Putin’s Russia ever embarked on such an ambitious project.
Every facility needed for the Games had to be rebuilt; nothing in crumbling Soviet Sochi met the requirements of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Sochi is a subtropical resort on the Black Sea. The first spas and hotels appeared here in the late 19th century, shortly after Russia colonised the Caucasus. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is the only subtropical coastline that Russians have been able to visit without a passport. Sochi’s name alone evokes nostalgic memories of postcards depicting palm trees, sunsets and palatial sanatariums; of summer loves or fully subsidised, week-long spa retreats, during which visitors were subjected to a regimen of massages, beach trips and sulphur baths.
The collapse of the Soviet Union also heralded the collapse of the subsidised spa system. Sochi declined into a shabby and somewhat chaotic seaside resort, abandoned by Russia’s middle-class holidaymakers in search of cheaper thrills in Turkey, Egypt and Thailand. That all changed with the emergence of Vladimir Putin.
Putin adopted the resort and pledged to rebuild a pioneer camp and the city’s image. He travelled the world, in an effort to convince the IOC that this subtropical summer capital was the ideal location for the Winter Olympics.
In order to meet the IOC’s requirements, Sochi underwent a radical transformation: a new airport, a new port, new roads, new railway lines, new hotels, media centres, athletes’ villages, skating stadiums, ski slopes, ski jumps, luge and bobsleigh tracks. Since 2007, the $12 billion price tag has risen to $52 billion, making these Games almost as expensive as all previous Winter Olympics combined. According to local entrepreneurs, the system is so corrupt that half of the total amount has disappeared in kickbacks and embezzlement.
For seven years, around 150,000 labourers have worked around the clock to finish the Games on time. They built six state-of-the-art skating venues, for figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and curling, all within 100 metres of each other on Sochi’s pebble beach. The skating venues were completed in late 2012, but the largest stadium, due to host the opening ceremony, was still unfinished at the end of December 2013.
On the coast, where a village of family hotels was bulldozed to make way for Olympic hotels and the athletes’ village, a temporary commercial port was erected. Sochi is Russia’s southernmost point and goods are transported to the city via a single-track railway line or a congested and often steep coastal road that winds along the foot of the mountains. The port was supposed to be the answer to this logistical nightmare, but the temporary facility was instantly destroyed during one of the Black Sea’s vicious storms in 2010.
It was not the first hurdle that the builders of the Games encountered. It became apparent that the skating venues had been built on swampy ground. Local activists whispered that there was a large lake below the venues, which would one day swallow them up. The foundations had to be adjusted at the last moment, requiring an additional billion dollar investment. Rubbish dumps are officially illegal in Sochi, because the region enjoys a special status as a spa resort where the groundwater is protected. Several attempts to build an incinerator failed due to incompetence and corruption. Companies such as Russian Railways, one of the country’s largest enterprises, are now attempting to dump construction waste illegally in an landfill. A hamlet in the hills above Sochi was swept away in 2009 by a churning avalanche from one of these illegal dumps, the contents of which had become unstable.
The stadiums on the coast and the ski slopes in the mountains are connected by a new road, on the right bank of the river. The old road, on the left bank, was tortuous and deadly: many are the stories of cars and buses that plunged into the ravine below. The chance of this happening on the new, four-lane highway are slim. Running through six newly drilled tunnels and over more than 40 bridges, the road whisks travellers directly and almost horizontally to the so-called mountain cluster in the valley at Krasnaya Polyana. Not that construction was quite as smooth as the end result: at a cost of more than $8 billion, the 48 kilometre road has become the most expensive in history. A Russian magazine calculated that for the same sum, the road could have been paved with a 90mm deep layer of cut-up Louis Vuitton bags, 47mm of fur coats or 138.5mm of Hennessy VSOP cognac.
The mountain cluster resembles a fairytale folly, where Stalin’s Empire style, alpine architecture and a sort of Disneyesque romanticism meet. Around it are the ski slopes, facilities for other skiing events and ski jumps, which also had to be rebuilt after deforestation caused a damaging landslide. The glamour of the newly developed sports area is in stark contrast to the almost self-sufficient lifestyle of the inhabitants of the valley’s two villages, who live off agriculture, honey and income generated by a few summer hikers.
Still, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. And many things have been broken in Sochi to realise this megalomaniacal project within seven years. Russia is not one of the world’s leading constitutional states, and so residents and activists stood little chance of protecting their homes, nature, rivers and groundwater. The websites of critical local bloggers were attacked, two environmental activists fled abroad, another was sentenced to three years in a prison camp. Workers who had not been paid for six months and went on strike were promptly laid off, with the parting words: ‘There are a dozen more where you came from.’
On the other side of the mountains, in Russia’s North Caucasus, a fierce battle is being waged against separatism and Islamic radicalism. Countless citizens, local journalists and activists have fallen victim to the violence, sometimes losing their lives, sometimes being locked up for years in remote prison camps, following often dubious trials. Yet the threat of a terrorist attack on the Olympics remains. They will be gripping, these most remarkable winter Games ever.
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Photographs: Rob Hornstra