Susan Ormiston: Russia's $50B Sochi Olympics gamble
Disruption for residents causes friction 1 year ahead of Winter Games
Sochi won't recognize itself in a year's time. The former Soviet spa city on the Black Sea is living through a building boom that is arguably the biggest in Europe.
The hum of construction goes on day and night. Roads are churned up. Five thousand heavy trucks tie up traffic. Seventy thousand Russian and migrant workers will be part of the build for Russia's first-ever Winter Olympics.
Road to the Olympics
CBC is the Canadian broadcaster for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian resort city of Sochi. This week, CBCNews.ca begins indepth coverage looking at preparations for the Games and life in Russia today. CBCSports.ca will have full coverage leading up to Games, which begin on Feb. 7, 2014.
But this isn't a refurbishing of old sports facilities — the Sochi 2014 organizers are trying to prepare 11 new venues in two main sites: coastal and mountain.
The last time the Soviet Union hosted an Olympics, in 1980, more than 60 countries boycotted Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
This time, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to welcome the world. He's gambling that a steep investment will pay goodwill dividends, but disruptions at home are causing friction and the budget is rising.
"Of course there are skeptics," says Putin.
In Sochi, 70 per cent of the venues are nearly finished, say authorities. But the grand stadium still looks like an open steel jaw waiting for its skin.
In this area of "moderate seismic hazard," two mild earthquakes in December and January meant the structure needed to be tested for damage. It's being constructed to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of nine, just in case.
The numbers for this Olympic project are staggering: 20,000 new hotel rooms are in the works and 20,000 spectators an hour will whiz up a new twin road-rail corridor that snakes 48 kilometres into the Caucasus mountains above the city.
Together, private investors and the state have already sunk $38 billion into these Games. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said Friday that the total cost for preparing and staging the event will soar above $50 billion, making these the most expensive Winter Games ever.
But for Sochi’s 400,000 citizens, living in a muddy, torn-up city and its suburbs is testing their pride in the Olympics.
'Forced to host it'
At a community meeting last week with Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, an angry Natalya Kalinovskaya voiced the frustrations of many.
"Nobody asked if we wanted this Olympics or not. Sorry to sound rude, but we've been forced to host it," she said.
"Like you see yourself, when they build roads first, and then dig them up to put in sewage and gas pipes, when everything is done in a rush, it's bad."
Sochi, which is about 1,300 kilometres south of Moscow, hasn't seen this kind of development since the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin started visiting in the 1930s. After he ordered that Sochi be developed into a spa city, Russians, cut off from travel outside the borders of the Soviet Union, flocked to the subtropical seaside.
With its promenades framed by palm trees and temperatures hovering around 14 C this week, it’s a strange choice for a Winter Olympics, especially in a country that is mostly frozen five months of the year.
But organizers boast that the "white snow meets the Black Sea" and are confident these Games will showcase a modern Russia.
"We want to demonstrate to the world through sustainable positive changes how Russia is different from the stereotypes, from the perceptions we are aggressive and not transparent," says Dmitry Chernyshenko, the CEO of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee.
"It’s incredible how in such a short period of time we are changing the environment and infrastructure which was not upgraded since middle of last century.
"This is really a great outcome," he adds.
1 year to go
Putin is jetting into Sochi this week to mark the "One year to go" preanniversary of the Sochi Games.
He's so closely tied to the Games that organizers call them "his baby." From the beginning of the bid and Sochi's selection as host city in 2007, Putin has been personally involved. He endorsed the mascots: the hare, the polar bear and the leopard. He's even had a hand in reviewing the program for the Opening Ceremonies.
"He invented this project," says Chernyshenko. "We are delivering it now."
Putin, who is intent on refurbishing his own image internationally along with the image of Russia, sees the Olympics as a way to boost his legacy.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic.
"Putin wants to create an image of Russia for the international community that there are no problems, only a few people are complaining, we are developing and it is prosperous. It's just a facade," says Vladimir Milov, an economist and leader of the Democratic Choice, an opposition party in Moscow.
"It's just not going to happen as a happy Potemkin village like Putin wants it to be," he says, using the Russian phrase for fake villages built just to impress.
Citizen activists and opposition politicians have made accusations of corruption in the construction trade and of environmental assessments being avoided by contractors. They've also suggested that criticism of the Olympics in the Russian press is quietly censored by the Kremlin.
Of the 2,000 Sochi and area homeowners displaced by construction, a few families still haven't settled their claims for compensation.
One of the last holdouts, the Mzokov family, watched the home they built in 1999 bulldozed in September to make way for a road far from the Olympic site. A nasty fight ensued over legal ownership, and Natalia Mzokova is furious.
"We got legal registration in 1999. But nobody talks to us, all the courts take the side of the authorities. We have all the proper documents and they do not even look at them," she says. "So much money spent on Olympics and our house was not in the way."
Put the Mzokov family's case to Chernyshenko, the Olympic Organizing Committee CEO, and he is conciliatory.
"In the end, we will fulfil the order from the president of Russia who said that all citizens should be compensated fairly."
While the local controversies continue, the sports venues that are up and running have already been put to the test ahead of next year's Games. World-class athletes have been competing on the cross-country trails, at the figure skating rink and on the ski hill; the snowboarding championships are coming up this weekend.
In the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana where the alpine events will be held, there is snow, finally, after a mild January.
Organizers are taking no chances. They will store snow beginning in March for next year; they can salt it with chemicals and they have installed more than 400 state-of-the-art snowmaking machines.
Few would have predicted a Winter Games in Russia would need snow doctors, but no one can risk the threat of rain on Putin's Games.