SOCHI OLYMPICS – PUTIN’S PROMISE WILL VLADIMIR PUTIN’S NEWLY PAVED, HIGHLY PRICED ROAD TO SOCHI 2014 ALSO LEAD TO A NEW RUSSIA? BY BRIAN PINELLI Chilled vodka will flow like raging mountain rivers and the finest black caviar will be served up faster than french fries at McDonalds. Around-the-clock parties will be extravagant beyond belief. Toothless hockey players will mingle with the world’s most distinguished dignitaries. Luxury cruise liners docked at sea will add to the grand spectacle. After all, when you drop more than $50 billion to construct 11 state-of-the-art sporting venues, build five-star hotels that have sprouted up like mushrooms on designer steroids, develop 160 miles of new roads, highways, bridges, and tunnels, and snake a sleek, high-speed train into previously untouched mountains,  what’s a few more rubles to entertain international celebrities, sporting icons, Fortune 500 CEOs and other, let’s say… anonymous VIPs?

Vladimir Putin expounding a new russia.

Welcome to Sochi, Russia. From February 7-23, 2014 the eyes of the world will get their first real glimpse at the Russian resort, which lies about 1,000 miles south of Moscow, as an estimated 6,000 athletes from 85 countries compete at the XXII Olympic Winter Games. Ninety-eight sets of medals will be awarded—including in 12 new events—making for the most expansive competition program in Winter Olympic history.  Enhancing the world’s curiosity and anticipation for this gargantuan sporting endeavor, Vladimir Putin and company are rolling out the red carpet while promising the Games are the beginning of the ‘New Russia.’ When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) boldly awarded the 2014 Games to the once rundown Black Sea resort in July 2007, the largest construction project in Olympic history began. Sochi is becoming Russia’s newest crown jewel—a lush, subtropical city dotted with palm trees and pebbly beaches, sprawling 90 miles along the Black Sea coast—a destination that has served as a holiday retreat since the days of Stalin. Towering in the near distance above the glimmering sea are the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Western Caucasus Mountains, making for a vastly paradoxical setting. Sochi 2014 organizers and Russian politicians have asserted that these Olympics in this highly unique locale will help to unveil the ‘New Modern Russia.’ The Sochi Games will be the most compact in Winter Olympic history, where for the first time in winter, a purpose-built Olympic Park—referred to as the Coastal Cluster—will be home to all ice competition venues, each within a short stroll of one another. The Mountain Cluster—where all outdoor snow events will be contested—is a 30-minute train ride away via the new high-speed railway.

Sochi 2014 Olympic Park

Six venues—including the Fisht Olympic Stadium, which will host both the opening and closing ceremonies—form a circle comprising Sochi Olympic Park in the district of Adler. The neighboring Olympic Village, which sits on the shores of the Black Sea, will offer easy access for the thousands of athletes housed there. The cornerstone of the Coastal Cluster is a 40,000-capacity stadium, where 300 artists and circus performers will try to dazzle the world come February 7. The Fisht Olympic Stadium is the first large-scale structure in Russia with a translucent polycarbonate roof. Its open sides will offer spectators expansive views of both the Caucasus Mountains to the north and the Black Sea to the south. The cost of this enterprising edifice, which derives its name from nearby Mount Fisht, is an astounding $603.5 million. Situated 30 miles up into the Rosa Valley are the five venues of the Mountain Cluster—homes to alpine, freestyle and nordic skiing, as well as snowboarding and the sliding events. The venues are perched above the once sleepy mountain settlement of Krasnaya Polyana and the Mzymta River, which flows through it. Krasnaya Polyana, which sits like an amphitheater surrounded by the Caucasus Mountains, will be the heart of the alpine festivities; its colorful new hotels and burgeoning restaurants will surely be a hot spot during the Games. The stylish competition venues all hosted their first action during critical World Cup tests over the previous two winters. Competitors have given the courses and venues mostly flying colors, although there is one issue that’s worrying everyone: the weather. Athletes have been perplexed by the unpredictable and often bizarre conditions that tend to hamper events at the Krasnaya Polyana outdoor sites. Last February, for example, freestyle skiers, snowboarders, and organizers dealt with a wide-ranging spectrum of elements—rain, wind, sun, mild temperatures and snow—at a World Cup test event contested at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. “The [mogul] course is awesome, the course is incredible, but the conditions here are the worst I’ve ever seen,” U.S. mogul skier Patrick Deneen admitted. “It’s just crazy weather.” Russian aerials skier Assoli Slivets echoed similar thoughts… as well as a sense of humor: “I’m really happy this competition happened because this week we had rain, sun, warm, snow, everything but an earthquake…”

scene from Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort

Rosa Khutor Ski Resort, which rises to 7,600 feet in elevation along Aibga Ridge from the rapidly expanding Krasnaya Polyana base village, will be home to the marquee alpine events where, among other elite racers, U.S. skiers Ted Ligety and Lindsey Vonn, Canada’s Erik Guay, and Slovenia’s Tina Maze will be chasing Olympic glory. The ultra modern resort, which is being run by the French Compagnie des Alpes, a world leader in ski resort management, has been playfully referred to as the ‘Russian Courchevel.’ The ever-expanding resort is on its way to offering 18 lifts and more than 50 miles of terrain, with a capacity of accommodating 10,500 guests per day. However, Rosa Khutor, with its high-speed cable cars, extensive snowmaking system, cozy chalets and freshly painted hotels has frequently been closed to the general public due to Olympic preparations and the staging of test events.  Whether or not tourists from beyond Russia’s borders will visit for ski vacations following the Games is the 30-million-ruble question. Lack of snow or unseasonably warm temperatures in February? Nyet problem. The Russians have developed a ‘Hot Snow’ technology where artificial snow can be produced in temperatures up to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. And if that fails, yet another option involves utilizing some 700,000 cubic meters of snow that has been stored in refrigerated reservoirs and under large insulated tarps. Insists one high-ranking Russian official: “We will face these measures and snow will be guaranteed in 2014.” In February of 2012, the world’s elite speed skiers made their first descents down the future Olympic downhill course at Rosa Khutor: a sinuous and knee-jarring test of endurance at 2.2 miles in length, including four thrilling jumps. Bode Miller, who is seeking to compete in his fifth Olympics in Sochi, gave the course high marks: “The set-up of the hill is good, the jumps are awesome—they’re huge as you can see—but they have good steep landings and straight takeoffs, so I think it sets up for a great, natural downhill.” Unlike your average World Cup tour stop, racers and coaches had to pass all gear over and proceed through metal detectors while armed security searched through belongings prior to boarding the Olympia gondola at the Krasnaya Polyana village. Two more gondola rides up to Rosa Peak and Russian Special Forces were conspicuously visible at the summit gazing out into the distant Caucasus Mountains.  “It’s something I’ve never seen before and it seems a little bit extreme,” admitted Norwegian triple Olympic medalist Aksel Lund Svindal, “but it’s probably better to be on the safe side.”

Lindsey Vonn on the Sochi downhill in February 2012

As for Ted Ligety, when the Park City skier ventured off hiking in search of some Caucasus freshies, a well-equipped soldier leaped out from behind a tree and confronted the easy-going giant slalom specialist. Multiple world championship medalist or not, Ligety was promptly advised to turn back. One of the most fascinating aspects of this newly paved Russian road to February 2014 has been the massive construction of a projected 242 hotels, with a capacity of 41,000 rooms, expected to be completed by Games time. Don’t want to stay on the mainland during the Games? Try one of seven luxurious cruise liners that will be converted into floating hotels during the Games. Princess Maria and Princess Anastasia will be among the fleet of ships, which will be docked at the renovated Bolshoi Sochi Port and Sochi Imeretinsky Port. Still, former IOC President Jacques Rogge emphasized that besides Sochi’s unpredictable winter weather, his greatest area of concern related to the success of the  Games is sufficient customer service at all those new ‘international standard’ hotels. He may have something there. At last year’s freestyle and snowboard World Cup, members of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Team appeared disappointed to learn that the new five-star hotel in Krasnaya Polyana, where they were staying, had yet to obtain its liquor license. Desperate to please the thirsty freestylers, a few evenings later, hotel staff proudly announced that the posh bar had indeed obtained the required license. It wasn’t long before the jubilant Canadians quickly discovered that this merely meant American Budweiser being served at  top-shelf vodka prices. Add a cheeseburger and your wallet will be approximately 780 rubles—about $25—lighter. It is exceedingly difficult to predict how these Games—in this unfamiliar, sun-drenched, Budweiser-serving city, with its potentially snowy slopes that Putin has been known to ski upon—will unfold. What is certain: those 17 days in February will be vastly different from anything that modern Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin ever envisioned when he drew up the first Olympic charter and organized the Athens Games in 1896. At last February’s one-year countdown celebration, held at the Bolshoi Ice Dome (a sleek-looking ice hockey venue that resembles a colossal spaceship), Putin welcomed the world to Sochi for the first time. “In February of 2014 the promises that we made will be accomplished,” Putin said, while standing beside former IOC President Rogge. “The work taking place in Sochi and around is unprecedented in Russia’s modern history and indeed in the Olympic movement’s history.” Not surprisingly, there are doubters and disbelievers in Putin’s enormous undertaking and countless questions remain. Will the mild temperatures and lack of snow witnessed in previous winters diminish the big show? Will outraged athletes and spectators protest Russia’s anti-gay propaganda legislation? And what about the billions of dollars purportedly stolen by developers of the region’s infrastructure? Will these Games truly uphold the Olympic spirit of international peace and humanity or be marred by corruption and reports of spying on athletes and visitors? On the hot seat faced with many of these tough questions over the past six years has been one of Putin’s newest comrades—Sochi 2014 President Dmitry Chernyshenko. The media savvy, 41-year-old Olympics leader tries to personify the image of the new ‘Russian cool,’ while taking on the unenviable burden of helping to usher in Putin’s alleged new chapter in Russia’s history. Going about his business, the social-media-addicted Chernyshenko tweets faster than Gorbachev preached Perestroika, not to mention joking and buddying with foreign journalists. Quips Chernyshenko: “I feel we’ll deliver the most innovative Games celebrating the spirit of the new modern Russia.” However, the tweeting Sochi boss and the 2014 Organizing Committee have dealt with their share of controversies while being challenged by various human rights and advocacy groups. Set with the task of organizing Sochi’s Olympic-size preparations, a job he likens to the “construction of a new city,” Chernyshenko has faced concerns over State Corporation Olympstroy’s hiring and alleged abuse of migrant construction workers who have toiled 24/7 over the past three years to help meet the games’ February 7 deadline.  During that period he’s handled claims of the workers’ alleged mistreatment, poor labor conditions, detainments and deportations, and of late—or even failed—payments for work performed. Then there’s Russia’s new anti-gay propaganda legislation, which was passed by Putin in June 2013. Prominent athletes, human rights groups, celebrities and politicians have condemned the law while pressuring the IOC to take a stronger stance against the Russian government’s views on gay rights. Russian leaders have offered conflicting interpretations of what might happen in Sochi—some predict the law will be suspended; others insist that it will be imposed. Regardless, rainbow flags flying at the opening ceremony will surely boost TV ratings. The lead-up to the Games has also been struck with internal controversy. Putin abruptly fired Russian Olympic Committee Vice-President Akhmed Bilalov last February. Bilalov was deemed the culprit for construction delays and cost overruns at the ‘RusSki Gorki’ ski jumping venue. The incident took on the makings of a James Bond 007 classic, as Bilalov—who remained under investigation for misallocation of millions of dollars—later claimed to Russian police that he had been poisoned with mercury. Bilalov fled to Germany and by SNOW’s press time, hadn’t been  heard from.

Sunset over Sochi

Of greater concern to Russian authorities was a video message posted on the Internet in July by North Caucasus warlord Doku Umarov. The terrorist leader, who claimed responsibility for the January 2011 bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, urged attacks by asking militants in the region to disrupt the Sochi games. Although experts have dismissed Umarov’s ominous threats as no more than an attempt to scare athletes and spectators, it surely provoked even tighter security measures, while adding to the billions already allocated to host the Games. Reportedly, two Russian warships will patrol Sochi’s neighboring waters as a part of the Games’ security effort. Despite all this, it appears the XXII Sochi Olympic Winter Games are just the first major step in Putin’s grand scheme to elevate Russia as an elite host of world-class sporting events. Sochi will remain in the spotlight when Russia’s first Formula One Grand Prix comes to town in October 2014. Top drivers will rev engines and navigate a 3.6-mile circuit around Sochi Olympic Park. Additionally, the Fisht Olympic Stadium will be among the venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and possibly a training facility for the national soccer team. Putin’s pet project also includes shaping Sochi into a year-round destination resort. Some of the colossal redevelopment projects include allowing large cruise ships to arrive at the seaports, a $300-million amusement park, an ‘extreme park’ in Sochi’s mountains, which will allegedly boast the world’s highest swing and world’s longest suspension pedestrian walkway. The final outcome and lasting legacy of the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi will undoubtedly be a compelling chapter in Russia’s modern history and, suffice to say, critical to government and sport leaders who have been so closely invested in this herculean venture. On the evening of February 23 when the Olympic flame is extinguished at the closing ceremony, one can’t help but ponder if Putin and company will be toasting to a prosperous “New Russia” and a “mission accomplished” with chilled vodka in hand? Or will IOC members, athletes, ski enthusiasts, Olympic addicts, human rights groups, gays and lesbians, and just about every other casual observer worldwide be thinking that these Winter Olympic Games would have been much better served had they been held in… perhaps…the Swiss Alps?