While the London Olympics -- less than two months away -- are a massive undertaking, the Winter Games in Sochi, 18 months later, will redefine a city and a region, and require the greatest building project ever associated with an Olympics. The city on the Black Sea coast, known as a summer resort, will, organizers hope, be transformed into a winter sports haven against the backdrop of economic challenges, security concerns and sporting demands on the country. SI.com spoke this week to Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, for an update on the Sochi Games preparations.
SI.com: How is Sochi progressing?
Dmitry Chernyshenko: It's the world's biggest construction site. It's more than 55,000 people working 24/7. It's a big, big job. But everything is on track despite some criticism. Yesterday we just had two days of executive review where we updated the current progress to the chairman of the coordination commission from the IOC who is responsible for the control of the Games from the IOC. We are delivering our mission. Mr. [Jean-Claude] Killy and IOC executive director Mr. [Gilbert] Felli had a chance to visit the venues, the transport system, the logistics, the accommodations, all the other aspects of the Games preparation. I was pleased to hear that they were impressed by the progress of our preparation, so this is great. We have no chance to let them down.
SI.com: Mr. Killy [a 1968 Olympic alpine gold medalist] was impressed with the downhill course.
DC: And he's an expert in this. He's an icon in our country. Three times an Olympic champion. He was in my position when he delivered the Albertville Games and this is his second opportunity to be the chairman of the coordination commission. So together with Mr. Putin [the Russian president], they consider the Games like their baby and we are the managers to help them to deliver it.
SI.com: It's an unusual baby in that your area was considered more of a summer resort than a winter resort. So when you were first presented with this idea at a conference in 2005, what were your thoughts about it? What was your biggest concern about it and how long was it before you started taking the idea seriously?
DC: Interesting. If I'm thinking about this conference, it was [eight] years ago, the beginning of our Olympic journey. I'm a Sochi native. I lived there, so I know all the advantages and disadvantages. The idea sounds crazy: how is it possible to host the Winter Games in a tropical city with the palm trees and the beaches? But from another perspective, they had some unbeatable competitive advantages that they used to realize the project's dream -- having literally nothing. It's like a painter having a blank canvas to paint what you really dream about, having in mind that we have empty space that was made up of agricultural fields and we can put all the Olympic venues within walking distance of each other to create the clusters with the present accommodations on the seashore just [3.1 miles] from an international airport. With the two motorways and the railway, it's perfectly connected with the mountain cluster, so in half an hour you can reach the mountains. It really dissolves the distance between the indoor venues and outdoor venues.
The biggest advantage was the well-thought-out legacy plan -- that we were not only redeveloping a region into a year-round facility; we also were building an international sport destination that will work for generations to come. Once you have the Games, a magic event, you launch a project you could not even dream about before. It's a very ambitious project that would take you 20 or 30 years. Also for the first time in the history of my country, thanks to the preparation of the Games, we introduced the green standard to construction. We created the standard of a barrier-free environment, which works as a blueprint of best practice for other regions. It's the biggest construction site in the world. It will be a new city we're building, but the outcome is much wider.
SI.com: What did you learn when you went to Vancouver and what do you hope to learn, even though it's a Summer Games, from visiting London?
DC: First of all, Vancouver is one of the most recognized cities in the world in terms of comfortable living and the environment. So the starting position was very different for Sochi, which was a relatively small city [pop. 343,000] with an underdeveloped infrastructure that really deserved to be updated. ... It was 1950 when the infrastructure of Sochi was built. We have a challenge to follow the logic that every Games should be different and better. Vancouver did a great job. They created a unique atmosphere. The national team was often on the podium and the Canadians did a great job in collecting the medals and, in combination with the atmosphere and infrastructure, they had a quality Games. We are also looking forward to picking up the Olympic button after the London Games. In two months, the focus will be firmly on us. We are sending more than 200 people who will be with the organizing committee in London. More than 200 Sochi proud volunteers, the cream of the [crop], will be working in London. We have a different task at our hands. We have 10 times more venues we need to build. We're in a very different starting position, to create and demonstrate to the world the face of the new modern Russia.
SI.com: I just want to confirm your budget numbers are still accurate: the construction budget of $6.5 billion U.S. and an organizational budget of $2 billion.
DC: That's absolutely correct. I'm in charge of the budget to deliver the Games. We already secured $1.2 billion from the marketing program. The rest is coming from other sources. We're the most successful organizing committee so far in terms of the amount of partners we attracted through our marketing program for the Games.
SI.com: The Vnesheconombank [VEB] had frozen some financing for construction. The numbers I saw were 46 billion rubles [$1.4 billion] committed, 106 billion [$3.2 billion] pledged. There was some concern about how this money would be paid back. Can you tell me what the status is?
DC: That was a minor problem, with VEB, the state-owned bank, which was financing the credit for some commercial investors who substituted public money in the program. The state supported them with a loan and the credit. It was a question, who would guarantee the refunding of the credit. It was decided that the state corporation in charge of construction would submit the guarantee and they would be, for the Games time, co-owner of the venues and when the credit was returned, they would dissolve the ownership share. This deal has been done successfully and has run only into problems with the private investors. We have the guarantee from the state, so in case the investors suffer a shortage of money or any other risk, then the state can buy out his property on fair evaluation of the commercial price and then we can continue to finish the venues, so as not to harm the deadlines of the construction projects.
SI.com: It is always said that one of the successful components of any Olympics is the performance of the home team. I know you are not on the Russian sport side of things per se. But the Russian team didn't do that well in Vancouver [15 medals]. Is there pressure on the Russian sportsmen to do well?
DC: Russia is a great winter sports country. The result of the Vancouver Games was frustrating for all Russians. I'm not responsible for the preparation of our national team, of course. We aim to provide equal opportunity for all the athletes from all countries. But as a Russian, I'm very eager to have the Russian team on the podium. In Vancouver, the success of the team was based on very thorough preparation. They had a certain program called "Own the Podium." They invested certain money to prepare certain athletes, provide them with the best technology, the best nutrition and so on. Here in Russia, the Ministry of Sports is doing everything possible to return Russia to the stage.
SI.com: Let me ask you about security. Last month there was talk of a terrorist plot aimed at the Games that was foiled. Every Olympics has security concerns, but how would you convince an athlete or a spectator who is coming there that everything will be safe for them?
DC: You're right. Show me the event, any major event in the world where security is not an issue. London has faced security issues and has managed them brilliantly. It's no different for us. Traditionally organizers are not directly involved in security issues. But I know the state is doing everything to keep the image of Sochi the safest and most comfortable city.
SI.com: But 10 caches of arms and missile-firing devices and ethnic unrest so close by? To an outsider that raises concern. Are you convinced that's under control at this point?
DC: You know the situation in general is not easy in the world. That is why the host nation should be ready for any scenario. I know everything that is needed will be there to protect the Games.
SI.com: Now more than ever it helps when a head of state is supportive of the bid. Just how essential has the support of Mr. Putin been, not only when Sochi received the Games, but now, given the fact that he often spends time in the area, is a sportsman, himself, and has been very outspoken in his support of the Games?
DC: Since the successful bidding campaign, Putin has been deeply involved in the project. That is why we call him the captain of our team and this project is his favorite baby. The fact that his first meeting when he became a re-elected president was in Sochi really reflects his attitude toward the project. He recognized Sochi as the gateway to the future for the country, because we won the historical right to host the Games for the first time in the history of a new modern Russia. Russia has collected almost all the big sports competitions in the world like FIFA World Cup, Universiade, Track and Field world championships, Ice Hockey world championships, Formula 1 races. Sochi was the first to open the door. The state leaders recognize the benefit of a project where commitments are strong, with deadlines unmovable to accelerate other processes to redevelop the region. Take, for example, the FIFA competition. We're renovating the roads connecting the biggest city that will be hosting the FIFA competition and the airports, train connection, other things.
SI.com: How is hotel construction coming?
DC: We're building about 28,000 different hotel rooms, [and they are] already on track. Many of them already obtained the international chain representative. You have to understand the scale of the work. We're building a new city surrounding the Olympic park, with the overall capacity up to 70,000 people.
SI.com: How do you feel as a person who has lived in Sochi, whose parents still live in Sochi? This is not a small reconstruction. This is a re-definition of your city?
DC: I'm not just pleased; I'm very proud and excited that we are building a new city, which seems to be the third capital of Russia. It could compete as a cultural capital with St. Petersburg. It could compete now as a business and entertainment and sport capital of the country as well. Recently Sochi entered the list of cities with the biggest number of sports events hosted annually. This is really exciting, [going] from the small village to a new world destination.
SI.com: Do you fear that it might lose some of its character?
DC: It's not about character; it's about legacy. ... My favorite example of the legacy now that has made a transformation of the society is that we created a culture that was not present in our country before. I'm talking about volunteerism. Now we have 100,000 volunteers across Russia, even though for the Games time, we will need just 25,000, but we are using preparation of the Games as an example for the future generation of people who want to do something positive in our country.