Sochi 2014 – streets paved with gold, caviar and snow (maybe)

Hot on the heels of Ukraine and Poland’s Euro 2012, the Black Sea resort of Sochi hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics. These Games will be a test of Russia’s modernisation, argues P. Hansbury.

With less than a year to go until the opening of the 2014 Winter Games, the enormity of the task ahead of Russia is becoming apparent.  Developers are busy building new stadia, hotels, public transportation and telecommunications networks to fulfil the ambitious plans.  Meanwhile, Putin’s visit to Sochi to mark the one-year countdown was the catalyst for vivid descriptions of snarled up traffic, air thick with dust, and discordant drilling in the press.  For Putin, the Games will be a defining moment in his third presidential term.  With the eyes of the world’s focused on it, Sochi 2014 aspires to be a symbol of Russia’s progress since the fall of communism.

The master plan for the redevelopment of Sochi has not come cheap – the latest reported costs of $50bn (£32bn) surpassed the $40bn spent on Beijing 2008, making Sochi 2014 the most expensive Games to date.  With costs constantly being revised this figure may yet be eclipsed.  Typically, for Russia, allegations of corruption are abundant.  The Moscow Times quoted Boris Nemtsov – a prominent opponent of the Putin regime, and native of Sochi – suggesting that the new 260bn rouble road connecting the two host ‘clusters’ of Adler and Krasnaya Polyana ought to be covered in gold and caviar if the money has been honestly spent.

Many other Russians are quick to suggest that the money could have been far better spent.  Such claims, though, accompany any large sporting event – and once the Games are underway many of the criticisms will be forgotten.  And underway they will be.  The Winter Olympics must start on 7 February next year, even if many of the promised hotels may be left un-built.  The dismissal of Ahmed Bilalov, the Vice President of the Olympic Development Authority, was rumoured to be a warning from Putin himself about the unacceptability of delays and rising costs. The RusSki Gorki Jumping Centre, for which Bilalov had personal responsibility, remains unfinished despite a deadline of mid-2011 for its completion.

Another scandal has involved the labour supply.  Human Rights Watch recently reported that migrant labourers from Central Asia and Ukraine are being denied adequate rest and refused their pay-cheques.  Many in the workforce are working illegally, making them susceptible to exploitation.  Human Rights Watch quotes one worker: ‘I worked for almost three months… for nothing but promises.’

The construction has almost certainly damaged the local environment.  The Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located 50km from Sochi.  Many of the region’s flora and fauna are unique and Greenpeace and WWF activists have been critical of what they perceive to be disregard toward the negative effects of the construction work on the environment.  There are also widely-reported concerns about the proximity to the volatile North Caucasus, though organisers promise rigorous security measures.  At the same time, Putin publicly pledged to simplify the visa regime for athletes and visitors.

Russia will need to learn quickly from Sochi 2014; in 2018 it hosts football’s World Cup. With host cities up to 2,500km apart and perhaps as many as twice as many spectators attending, 2018 will be something else entirely.


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