Organizers invoke it again and again: The 2014 Winter Olympics, set to take place precisely a year from now in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, will herald "a new Russia." To underscore that determination to exalt all things new, the Sochi Games have already assured themselves of delivering at least five Winter Olympic "firsts."
Sochi will be the first Winter Games:
? With venues built entirely from scratch. After awarding the Games to the Russian Riviera in July 2007 by a four-vote margin, the International Olympic Committee swallowed hard. Would it be possible to build every necessary venue, plus all the infrastructure to support them, in little more than six years? For a while IOC technocrats wore out the air routes between Switzerland and Sochi, flying in just to calm their nerves. Then it became clear how much Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing to ensure that the Olympic effort, conceived as an exercise in national pride, didn't become one of national humiliation: He leaned on oligarchs, and cronies in charge of state-owned companies, to bankroll construction and underwrite sponsorships. And he put a trusted fixer, deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, in charge of coordinating every Olympic-related project.
There has been collateral damage. Migrant workers have been ridden so hard to meet deadlines that human rights advocates are crying foul, and a community of old Orthodox believers were evicted from their ancestral homes, which were razed for the Olympic Park. But the 810 new construction sites around the city figure to benefit most of Sochi's 400,000 inhabitants for generations. Only 10 percent of the $23 billion for new investment in the region has gone toward sports-specific projects. Organizing committee CEO Dmitry Chernyshenko uses the analogy of "a blank canvas" to describe the once-in-a-millennium chance his hometown has been given to remake itself.
? With a purpose-built Olympic Park. Next to their sprawling summer counterparts, Winter Games are relatively intimate affairs. But Sochi will take this intimacy to a new level, staging the Games entirely in two "clusters." A mountain cluster of venues, 28 minutes by high-speed rail from the coast, will host skiing and sliding. But Sochi's gemstone will be the coastal cluster, with its indoor ice venues for skating, hockey and curling, as well as the 40,000-seat Fisht Stadium, which will host only the opening and closing ceremonies, and then await a second act as one of 16 host venues around Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Hard by the Black Sea, the Olympic Park will be able to hold up to 75,000 spectators at a given time. Yet any athlete staying in the adjacent Olympic Village will be able to reach any venue, on foot, in 10 minutes.
? To take place in a subtropical climate. Sochi is a microclimatological freak. Palm trees line its seaside promenade, the sun shines for 300 days a year and the tea fields of the Krasnodar region are the northernmost in the world. But with climate change disfiguring weather patterns all over the globe, aren't organizers mocking the fates to expect mountains only 30 miles away from the shore to deliver the requisite snow?
While it doesn't snow frequently, when it does, the stuff comes down hard: The same humid air that makes for stifling summers on the coast can meet with cold air from the Caucasus to create a real dumping. And just in case there isn't enough snowpack by next February, organizers have launched what they call the "Hot Snow Program." For the past three years they've refrigerated chemically treated snow, so it can be broken out where it might be needed. (For a December ski jumping test event, some of the stored snow got pressed into service, with huge round balls flattened to cover patchy spots around the landing area.) In addition, the alpine course at Rosa Khutor is lined with snow guns that can produce, even at temperatures as high as 50 degrees. Modern Russia, indeed.
? To feature so many new medal events. There will be a dozen of them, including several, such as slopestyle skiing and snowboarding, taken whole from the X Games. It's all in keeping with the IOC's abiding desire to make sure that TV ratings skew young enough to keep advertisers happy and rights fees robust. But several new disciplines will have a more classic look, including women's ski jumping, and relays in luge and biathlon, each of which will mix men and women. Here's an in-depth description of each of the new events.
? In Russia. It's hard to believe, given the big part winter sports played in the old Soviet sports machine, but Russia has never hosted a Winter Olympics. More urgently, after winning the most golds and finishing second in overall medal count as recently as 1994 at the Lillehammer Olympics, Russia has been in a medals swoon. The nadir came three years ago in Vancouver, where Russian athletes won just 15, including only three gold.
Just because there are good reasons for the decline -- the breakaway republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan took with them the finest winter sports training facilities in the old Soviet Union -- doesn't make it any easier to swallow. To reverse those fortunes, Russian athletes and sports federations have been dipping into millions in oligarch cash collected by the Russian Olympians Foundation. And last month Russian Olympic Committee president Alexander Zhukov, who took over after the Vancouver debacle led to the firing of his predecessor, laid down ambitious goals: 40 to 45 medals overall, with at least 14 of them gold.
Putin is interested in much more than being a gracious and modern host. To maximize the nationalist passions on which his United Russia Party plays, The Bear must win.