/ 29 April 2015

Olympic white elephants haunt Sochi

The athletes' village built in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The athletes' village built in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

A stone’s throw from the Black Sea is a cemetery, filled with old believers, a purist sect of the Orthodox Church. It sits between the Iceberg Skating Palace and the Olympic Fisht Stadium, a monolithic arena of crosshatched steel beams. A grove of trees hides the solemn burial ground from sight in the Adler district in the Imeretinsky Valley.

Russian law prohibited construction companies building facilities for the 2014 Winter Olympics from demolishing the graveyard, an authentic landmark in a cacophony of amenities that includes a Formula One race track adjacent to Sochi’s Olympic park and nearby identically-shaped hotel buildings.

Chemistry student Richard Goydenko (21), from Moscow, is on holiday with his parents and they are staying in one of Adler’s hotels. “Sochi is a beautiful city to relax, have a drink and meet beautiful people,” he said.

Nestled between the sea and the Caucasus Mountains, Sochi has always been associated with rest. The numerous sanatariums provide short-term repose and medical services. Stalin often visited, seeking mental and physical serenity. The Russian jet set did so too, but Sochi’s allure diminished with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Then, in 2007, the International Olympic Committee bestowed Russia with the task of hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2014. Construction in Sochi began. President Vladimir Putin said that Russia’s winning bid was “an assessment of our country”.

After the disappointment of the Cold War Moscow Olympic Games, Russia was intent on delivering a memorable, all-encompassing spectacle in Sochi. Apart from an opening ceremony hiccup, in which five floating snowflakes transformed into just four Olympic rings, the 2014 Olympic Games were a laudable celebration of winter sports. The hosts topped the medal table with 33 laurels.

Infamous barring
The South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee infamously barred its only athlete, teenage skier Sive Speelman, from competing for not meeting its selections policies, despite an invitation by the International Olympic Committee and the International Ski Federation.

These Winter Olympics were also the biggest ever: 88 nations participated with 2 873 athletes competing in 98 sports events.

But little over a year later much of Sochi’s grandeur remains questionable. Accusations of corruption, Russian legislation perceived to be antigay, and security concerns over Abkhazia marred the build-up. Now, the legacy question is consuming Sochi.

“The Olympic and Paralympic ­legacy cannot be underestimated,” said Sochi’s mayor Anatoly Pakhomov. “The Olympic park area was swamps and marshes. The entire legacy is based on the infrastructure of the city.”

The 17-day extravaganza came with an astronomical price tag of $55-billion. The figure of $51-billion to transform the region is the de facto accepted total cost by virtue of its frequent repetition in the media, but it does not correspond with reality according to Martin Müller, a professor at the University of Zurich. He says Sochi overran its projected budget of $12.5-billion 4.5 times over by spending $38-billion on non-sports related capital costs.

“This investment was money well spent because we have contributed to infrastructure for sports, but also to infrastructure that would not be there without the Olympics,” said Pakhomov, who once claimed that homosexuality was not accepted in the Caucasus and that there were no homosexuals in Sochi.

“A big part of this money came from the pockets of private investors and owners of the projects,” explained Pakhomov.

Public funds
The expensive Olympic Games were publicly funded, writes Müller. Sochi was to demonstrate modernisation by encouraging the role of the private sector and a ­projected investment of $4-billion, 38% of the initial budget.

The state, comprising the federal state, Krasnodar Province and the City of Sochi, contributed $29.2-billion. Gazprom, Russian Railways and other state-owned companies added $11.4-billion. State-backed loans made up $8.2-billion, leaving a final, genuine share by private investors of $1.7-billion, or 3.5% of the total budget.

Putin’s $55-billion vanity project, homage to his 13-year reign as Russian president, could be turning sour. The former KGB agent wanted to transform Sochi into a modern, multiprofile seaside resort and use the soft power of the Olympic Games for image building. Rather, the result of Sochi’s metamorphosis is a ghost town where large blue banners of “Sochi 2014” have remained and hotels are unoccupied.

The rhetoric of a new Russia, “Hot. Cool. Yours.” was Sochi’s Olympic slogan, may have also failed. Rather than repositioning Russia’s tarnished and antagonistic role on the world stage, Putin went on a bellicose odyssey by invading Crimea.

“Putin is a good president,” countered Goydenko. “The West thinks he is a tyrant and that ordinary Russians only drink vodka and play the balalaika. Putin has realised a lot. He is a smart and talented leader.”

The 2018 Fifa World Cup will be Russia’s next big sports party and gold rush. The 40 000 capacity Fisht Stadium will be expanded to meet Fifa’s standards. The cemetery will endure, but so will the legacy quandary.