Scene from Sochi three days before the start of the Winter Olympics
SOCHI -- Is Sochi really ready for this? The Olympic host city is just days away from saying доброе утро, which is Russian for good morning, to the 2014 Winter Games. By the time we all say до свидания, here's hoping everything is in working order. IOC officials admit concern now about accommodations and planning, as the 2014 Games' opening ceremonies are just four days away, and certain events start in just three. In the push to make sure the Olympics are safe and secure, an obvious primary concern, many other operational basics are falling through the cracks of the city's still-drying plaster and concrete.
"The Russians have given assurances they will be ready," says one IOC official. "We have taken maybe a bit too much at face value."
The Games' events are being held in two separate areas around Sochi. The Coastal Cluster, closest to the city of Sochi, is hosting ice events, such as figure skating and hockey. The Mountain Cluster, up in -- you guessed it -- the mountains, is holding the various ski events on snow.
While some Olympic hosts already have many facilities built when they bid for the Games, the situation was a bit different for Sochi. The idea of staging the Winter Olympics in Sochi was to grant a re-birth to a once-proud sporting power. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian Republic found itself woefully short of both competition and training venues for winter sports, since many facilities were located in breakaway republics. The country's Winter Olympic medal count suffered, and many top coaches left for greener and more lucrative opportunities abroad.
However, it was promised that all construction would be finished on time if the Games came to Sochi (a summer resort town, in some ways too warm for winter sports), leaving behind facilities for athletes and visitors long after a successful Olympics. President Vladimir Putin strongly supported the bid, and is staking his good name on the Games' success.
Yet here we are, and many hotels remain unfinished or in states of disrepair. The athletes' village appears set, but while the IOC has been consistent in downplaying reports of budget overruns as costs that belong to structural upgrades of the city rather than Games' preparation, there has been little acknowledgment of just how much money has apparently disappeared from construction budgets through theft and bribery and how much construction remains undone. Unlike Olympics in, say, Los Angeles, where most sports venues and accommodations were already in place, Sochi officials built a new city.
Gilbert Felli, the IOC's Games Director, told us that just three percent of the rooms were unfinished as of Monday. "If people have not been put outside, it is not a catastrophe," Felli said. "We don't feel it will be a big issue."
Three of nine hotel centers in the mountain cluster remain unfinished and several people who have paid for single rooms are arriving to find other strangers -- in at least one case of the opposite gender -- already in their rooms. The three percent of officially unfinished rooms Felli mentioned are all located in the mountains, where one hotel guest arrived to find stray dogs in his room, and others discovered sewage dripping from their faucets.
"I have some travel experience," IOC President Thomas Bach said today. "I know how embarrassing it is when you arrive after a long flight and your room is not ready."
The Coastal Cluster hotel where SI is staying is among the lucky (i.e. finished) ones. However, it's not without its problems: the Wi-Fi is not operational, the TVs don't work, there are wires laying on the floor (surely they must connect to something?), the rooms are without clocks and shower curtains, reception areas are unstaffed and this morning the main entrance was locked from the inside, leading to a rather clumsy exit outside a first-floor window.
It called to mind a previous visit for an IOC Session in Moscow in 2001 when I walked into a hotel room to find no beds and three fax machines. (Time to search the Russian phrase book for "huh?") Officials are now prioritizing, as sponsor representatives are finding rooms lacking and some athletes' family members have been told their rooms are not ready.
"There are technical considerations with every Olympics," Felli says. Remember Barcelona? Athens? Sochi is no different."
But it is. The 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona came together at the last moment, but they were great fun. The city was alive at all hours of the night and Las Ramblas, the main hub of celebration, became a gathering point for guests, spectators and Charles Barkley, who seemed to be everywhere.
In contrast, Sochi looks like a giant fortress. Because of concerns about terrorism, fences are everywhere, keeping people in or out of whatever is finished or unfinished. Signs warning people not to enter certain areas sit side-by side with welcome signs featuring smiling misha bear mascots. The main streets of Sochi and nearby Adler are hardly beehives of activity. Recent Winter Games have had medals plaza constructed as gathering points where fans have gathered to listen to bands, watch highlights on giant screen and see athletes in certain sports receive their medals. There is no such plaza here.
Lacking the passion of Barcelona, the Nordic charm of Lillehammer and the historic side venues of Athens, Sochi must rely on whatever happens once competition starts to leave a favorable impression.
"I think you'll see once the Games begin that people will be talking about what great Olympics these are," Felli says. Those competitions can't get here fast enough."