The Russian Government has a lot riding on the Sochi Olympics – prestige, glory, credibility, and an enormous amount of money. But why choose Sochi in the first place?
The Winter Olympics open in Sochi on February 7, 2014. Russia’s grand project, personally supported by President Putin, has been mired in controversy ever since Sochi won the bid almost seven years ago. So far, global media attention has focused on Russia’s human rights violations – in contravention of the ideals laid out in the Olympic Charter – and the cost. What has attracted less attention is the undeniable fact that Sochi is a very unfortunate choice for a host city.
The price tag was always going to be high because 85% of the infrastructure had to be built from scratch.
Criticism of the Sochi Olympics abounds. Russian commentators have spoken about the dramatic spike in property prices and the relocation of thousands of Sochi residents so as to clear space for the Olympic sites; environmentalists have highlighted the damage to local biosphere reserves; and human rights campaigners have publicised Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation and exploitation of migrant workers. Everybody, at home and abroad, is talking about the cost; with a price tag of around £31 billion, Sochi takes the gold medal for the costliest Olympic Games in history. To put it another way, the Sochi Olympics may well end up costing more than all previous Winter Olympics combined.
In Guatemala City in 2007, President Putin, wooing the Olympic Committee, promised to spend $12 billion. The Sochi Games would be expensive, but perhaps not even he imagined how expensive.
The price tag was always going to be high because 85% of the infrastructure had to be built from scratch. Not only hockey arenas, stadiums, and ski facilities, but also, according to the mayor of Sochi, 200 miles of new roads and railways, 55 bridges, 22 tunnels, two thermo-electric power stations, 438 transformer substations, three water purification plants, and 49 hotels were constructed. All of them built at astronomical prices; a thirty-one-mile road and rail network connecting the two Olympic sites – Coastal Cluster and Mountain Cluster – come with a bill of £5.3billion.
Corruption has added massively to the cost, with Russia’s opposition politicians reporting that over half of the Olympics budget went to 'embezzlement and kickbacks.' The awarding of contracts has also been questioned: it has been reported that industrial billionaires Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo sparring partners, received twenty-one government contracts totalling £4.5 billion.
Cost overruns, corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental destruction have certainly not helped Russia’s international reputation (the exact opposite of what the Kremlin was hoping for), but one cannot say per se that the Kremlin was wrong in wanting to host the Olympics. For the Russian Government, like every other government making an Olympic bid, the Sochi Games are about status – Russia reclaiming its place on the world stage. While £31 billion is a lot to pay for prestige and glory, the sticker shock is not perhaps the most interesting question to ask about these Games. The big question is this: of all the [cold] northern cities where they could have staged a Winter Olympics, why did the Russian Government choose instead a small, southern resort?
Russians’ favourite resort
There were several arguments in Sochi’s favour. A prospective Olympic city had to have the right geography for skiing and meet some basic infrastructural requirements for hosting an international event of this kind. The ski resorts in the mountains near Sochi are some of the best in the country, while the area boasts hundreds of hotels and guesthouses, which reduces the need for new construction. But these factors were not the only ones that gave Sochi the Games. The Russian Government was actually less concerned about how suitable Sochi is as a short-term site for the Winter Olympics, and more interested in the long-term economic prospects of the region.
Olympics publicity soon fades, and the history of most Olympic venues shows that a newly built sports infrastructure is no guarantee of future profits from international tourism. This is why the Kremlin preferred to choose a region that it believes is most likely to pay off in the domestic market, in the long term. Sochi, situated between Europe’s highest mountains and Russia’s warmest sea, is the country’s most popular summer resort. By bolstering Sochi’s winter sports infrastructure and building spacious arenas, the Russian Government is betting big on Sochi becoming the ultimate domestic destination for year-round sports and entertainment tourism – later this year, the Coastal Cluster will be the site of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix. This all assumes, however, that middle class Russians might prefer to go skiing in Rosa Khutor rather than Courchevel.
Selecting Sochi as the site for a Winter Olympics makes about as much sense as choosing Malaga or Cannes.
A subtropical Winter Olympics
The Russian Government has made a big investment in Sochi, which is unfortunate, both for Russians who do not ski or prefer the French Alps, and for the actual Olympics because, when you look closely at Sochi, it has a whole range of disadvantages that should have ruled it out from the very beginning as an Olympics host city; climate for one. Russia, one of the world’s coldest countries, picked for the Winter Olympics a city that has no snow in winter. Selecting Sochi as the site for a Winter Olympics makes about as much sense as choosing Malaga or Cannes.
The sporting events will be split between the Sochi Olympic Park, sprawling along the narrow Black Sea coast, and Krasnaya Polyana located on the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Krasnaya Polyana, situated at an altitude of about 600 metres above sea level, usually has real snow in February, although this hardly matters. It is common practice for Winter Olympics organisers to rely on man-made snow. From nearby mountains, the Russians have stored 710,000 cubic metres of last winter’s snow, kept snug under insulated blankets, and brought in more than 550 snow cannon – many have been in operation since December.
Sochi is a beach resort, with palm trees, which makes it an unorthodox choice for a Winter Olympics
Sochi, or more accurately Adler, where you will find the Olympic village, the ice hockey, skating, and curling arenas, and also the main stadium hosting the opening and closing ceremonies, has absolutely no snow that falls from the sky. This has nothing to do with climate change or being unlucky with the weather. Sochi has a 'humid subtropical' climate; in fact, Sochi, the warmest city to host the Winter Olympics to date, has an average high temperature in February of 9.9°C. Sochi is a beach resort, with palm trees, which makes it an unorthodox choice for a Winter Olympics.
The North Caucasus
There are other reasons why Sochi is not an ideal venue for the Olympics. The city is situated very close to the North Caucasus, a region that the Russian Empire occupied and colonised in the nineteenth century. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Russian Federation fought two civil wars in Chechnya, and in recent years suicide attacks and mass bombings have spread across the North Caucasus. Volgograd, a major city in Russia’s south, witnessed twin bombings on 29 and 30 December, 2013. Sochi is much closer to the North Caucasus than Volgograd.
In May 2013, the 'Caucasus Emirate,' an alleged al-Qaeda associate, vowed to unleash ‘maximum force’ to disrupt the Sochi Olympics, which it called a ‘pagan event.’ The organisation, which the United States designates as terrorist, seeks to unite the entire North Caucasus into an independent Islamic state. Doka Umarov, its leader, is the mastermind behind the Moscow metro and airport bombings in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Sochi also lies just ten miles from Abkhazia, a breakaway province of the Republic of Georgia, and a de facto independent state, recognised and financially propped up by the Kremlin. Abkhazia is set to financially benefit from the Olympics, with its political cause indirectly promoted through tourism. As recently as 2008, Russia and Georgia fought a war over another nearby secessionist territory, South Ossetia, which is also recognised and supported by Russia. Hosting the Olympics on the border with Abkhazia is, in effect, a snub to pro-Western Georgia.
To add to this unenviable bouquet of geopolitical shortcomings, Sochi is inextricably linked with a controversial historical event – the expulsion of Circassians from the Russian Empire. The Circassians are an umbrella designation for many ethnic groups from the eastern coast of the Black Sea. In the first half of the nineteenth century, they waged a war against Russia's expansion into the North Caucasus, which they lost. The Russian Empire annexed their territories, and then either ‘encouraged’ them to emigrate or simply expelled them outright. Nearly 90% of Circassians went into exile. Tsar Alexander II, known as the Liberator (of Russian peasants), proclaimed victory over the Circassian ‘rebels’ in 1864.
The date of 1864 makes 2014 the 150th anniversary of the Circassian expulsion. From the Sochi coast, ships loaded with Circassian refugees set sail for the Ottoman Empire. Circassians died in thousands on the journey, of hunger and disease. The triumphant parade of Russian troops, marking the end of the war, took place on May 21, 1864 in Krasnaya Polyana, site of the Sochi Winter Olympics. A Russian settlement would later be built there, atop an abandoned Circassian (according to other sources, Abkhaz) village.
In choosing Sochi as a site for the Olympics, Russia is airbrushing its history
Some activists from the Circassian diaspora are pressing for the recognition of the expulsion as genocide; and the Parliament of Georgia has already done so. Russia vehemently denies any blame and contests the label of ‘genocide.’ It has been a long-standing tradition of successive Tsarist, Soviet, and Russian Federation governments to downplay the forced expulsion of Circassians from their homes, and instead stress the ‘voluntary’ nature of Circassian emigration. Whatever the label given to this shameful chapter of Russian history, what matters here is that the accusations of genocide have been made, and the site of the Sochi Olympics stands for an epic tragedy of hundreds of thousands of people. In choosing Sochi as a site for the Olympics, Russia is airbrushing its history.
While the global media has understandably focused on Russia’s most obvious failings – human rights abuses, corruption, environmental damage, and a menacing rise of xenophobia and nationalism – Sochi itself has so far largely avoided scrutiny. But in the glare of worldwide publicity, that bright subtropical sunshine might well reflect more than the slalom.