Anatoly Pakhomov is the mayor of Sochi, the resort city on the Black Sea that will host the 2014 Winter Games. Bluff and broad-shouldered, he's the fourth man to hold the office since Sochi's Olympic bid won in 2007. He scrupulously ducked Western reporters during his 2009 mayoral campaign, in which he received 77% of the vote and, as the Kremlin's preferred candidate, an even greater proportion of state-owned media coverage. But on a classic Russian Riviera winter's day, with 50° temperatures and a sun that highlights the palm trees outside city hall, Pakhomov is welcoming and expansive as he talks about Sochi and its Games, which are barely a year away.
This is an article from the Feb. 18, 2013 issue
He fields a question about how best to describe his town to Westerners. With its film festival and seaside promenade, is Sochi another Cannes, perhaps? Or, with its annual International Investment Forum and growing reputation for skiing, is it the next Davos? Pakhomov won't bite on a comparison. "Sochi stands out distinctly," he says. "It's a beach resort and a ski resort. And because of the greatest logistics in the history of the Olympic Games, you'll be able to take a walk by the sea, hop on a train and in 30 minutes watch skiers go down a mountain. Can you show me any other city in the world that has this?"
Pakhomov takes a laser pointer to three huge maps on a wall in his office. One features the Olympic Park, hard by the Black Sea, home to a coastal cluster of venues for hockey, speedskating, figure skating and curling. Another map depicts a mountain cluster up the Krasnaya Polyana river valley and into the western Caucasus, where skiing, snowboarding and sliding will take place. The third map takes the full measure of Pakhomov's dominion—one of the largest conurbations in the world, stretching for 90 miles along the seashore—a place where for several months in the spring you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon.
The mayor's office has the look of a command center for good reason. The International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Sochi even though the city had neither a single venue nor an extensive modern infrastructure. Pakhomov delivers a numbing stream of statistics to document how he and Games organizers are eliminating that deficit. The competition venues are complete and already hosting international test events, 22 so far. Yet 176 of the 206 construction sites are non-sports-related, for everything from hotels to traffic interchanges to sewage treatment plants. A bypass road has been built to relieve traffic downtown. The Olympics will leave the city with three new hospitals, 16 renovated health facilities, six new recreation centers, 19 new cultural centers, 500 miles of freshly laid cable and 4,000 apartments that, after lodging volunteers during the Games, will become general housing stock. The building boom figures to triple the city's power demands, hence the need for 450 new electrical substations. "If not for the Olympics, it would have taken us 50 years to build all these things," the mayor says. "Instead, in one breath, all the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. The Olympics are the locomotive for all this change."
But beyond Eastern Europe, Sochi remains largely a mystery. Ninety-five percent of its tourist trade still comes from old Warsaw Pact countries. That stands to change if the Games succeed in showcasing what the organizers call the New Russia. Pakhomov fancies himself a tribune of the future, notwithstanding the authoritarian provenance of his mayoralty. "Our management style in the Sochi city administration is now more democratic than in some Western countries," he says. "For instance, I have a mobile telephone. Anybody in Sochi can call this number and report directly to me about this or that problem. Sometimes I'm irritated by the volume of calls, but that's an example of the change in mentality."
Still, the most telling feature of the mayor's office isn't the war-room decor or the snap-to-it manner of aides who come and go. It's the photograph that hangs over his desk, a portrait of fellow United Russia party member Vladimir Putin, the country's president. These Games are every bit as meaningful to the Kremlin as the 2008 Beijing Olympics were to the mandarins of the People's Republic of China. The items on Sochi's Olympic to-do list will get done just as Pakhomov's election got done, because they're regarded as imperative. They will get done because Uncle Vladimir, from his prospect over the mayor's shoulder, never blinks.
There would be no Sochi Olympics without Putin. The organizing committee has been headquartered in Moscow, where he can monitor every detail. Deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak, a trusted technocrat, serves as the de facto Olympics minister. The president has leaned on Russia's oligarchs to bankroll much of Sochi's new infrastructure, and executives at state-owned companies such as the oil giant OAO Rosneft and the country's largest bank, Sberbank, have helped Sochi collect more domestic sponsorship revenue than any previous Olympics, winter or summer. "Putin is the only reason they got the Games, and no one hides that fact," says David Nowak, who runs the English-language desk at R-Sport, the sports arm of RIA Novosti, the Sochi 2014 host news agency. "It's his pet project, part of his effort to restore Russia's sporting might. He pulls strings and controls funds through the state companies and the oligarchs."
The Russian president himself made Sochi's final pitch before the IOC vote in Guatemala City. It was only the second time he had spoken English in public. He invoked Greek mythology, pointing out that there'd be no Olympic flame today if Prometheus hadn't stolen fire from the gods. As punishment he was chained to a rock in the Caucasus, on Mount Fisht, which overlooks Sochi and lends its name to the stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place. The rest of Putin's speech amounted to a succession of promises, each coming with the warranty of his political power.
"Seventy percent of participants will be housed within five minutes' walking distance of their competition venues," the president said. Then he paused, like a Borscht Belt comedian. "Five minutes' walking distance. Not bad.
"I went skiing there six or seven weeks ago"—it was July when Putin said this—"and I know, real snow is guaranteed.... And one more special privilege: no traffic jams. I promise."
Considering the source, it was all very persuasive. As Jean-Claude Killy, the 1968 triple gold medalist in skiing who chairs the IOC's coordination commission, drily told reporters in 2011, "Mr. Putin told me Sochi has the best snow in the world. I have no reason not to believe him."
"That speech came from the heart," says Dmitry Chernyshenko, the Sochi native who serves as CEO of the organizing committee. "We're lucky that our state leader is the ultimate sportsman and sports lover. He understood the value of the Games, and of the Games' coming to Russia. That's why he has called the project his 'baby.'"
To fulfill his pledges to the IOC, Putin has, as Nowak says, enlisted Russia's oligarchs, the opportunists who became billionaires during the collapse of the Soviet Union by taking over vast amounts of oil, gas and metals, reportedly gaining control of some 40% of the country's GDP. Most of these two dozen men are patriotic Russians, and Putin has always been quick to exploit any sense of guilt or obligation, not to mention fear of arrest or persecution. Soon after assuming the presidency at the end of 1999, Putin summoned leading oligarchs to the Kremlin and essentially told them they could keep their fortunes only if they foreswore politics and ponied up when their country needed them to. The Sochi Olympics are Exhibit A of their country needing them to.
In 2005, 15 oligarchs pooled together $40 million to establish the Russian Olympians Foundation, a honeypot to cover training stipends, incentive bonuses and the salaries of top-level coaches. Three of those 15 also have leading roles in the development of Sochi. Roman Abramovich, the financier who owns Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League, is building hotels and infrastructure around the coastal cluster. Oleg Deripaska isn't much of a sports fan, but his industrial group underwrote the Olympic Village, the Main Press Center and the new airport terminal, as well as the transformation of a Stalin-era sanatorium into the Rodina, a hotel fit for oligarchs, in central Sochi.
But the oligarch most closely associated with the Games is Vladimir Potanin, who so loves skiing that he reportedly had a slope built within his $11 million Moscow villa. At the time of Sochi's first bid, in 1991, the Aibga Ridge above Krasnaya Polyana featured a series of remote snowfields for wealthy heli-skiers. Four years later, for bid number 2, Potanin sketched out plans for an Alpine resort, Rosa Khutor, to which his involvement lent considerable credibility. By the time he urged Putin to mount Sochi's third, ultimately successful bid, Potanin had begun to increase his investment in Rosa Khutor from $300 million to $2 billion. The resort will host the Alpine and extreme events next year.
A central tenet of Putinism is to restore Russia's pride after the humiliations of the Soviet endgame and the economic chaos of Boris Yeltsin's presidency during the 1990s. Sports have been essential to that effort. Like Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, Putin braids sports to the media he controls, whipping up nationalistic passions that also serve his political goals. Attracting major international events is a big part of that strategy: This year Russia will host the world track championships, the Rugby World Cup Sevens and the World University Games. After the Olympics come the world swimming championships (in 2015), the world ice hockey championships ('16) and soccer's World Cup ('18). A campaign is also under way to attract the '19 basketball World Cup (formerly the World Championships). In each case the event will be as much about meeting deadlines—a sport at which Russia hasn't been a podium regular—as about the prestige of playing host.
Potanin has also funded the Russian International Olympic University, the country's first sports-management academy, to be housed in a cluster of four high-rise buildings going up a block from the waterfront in central Sochi. In September the school will accept its first master's degree candidates. They'll study marketing, management and tourism, hoping to become the graduates who sell and stage the events that brand Sochi as an international sports city: Formula 1 (Sochi will become a stop on the circuit in the fall of 2014, with a course that wends its way through the Olympic Park), the World Cup (Sochi will be one of 11 cities around Russia to host) and professional hockey (Sochi is looking to attract a lower-tier team and install it in the Olympic Park after the Games as a full member of the seven-nation Kontinental Hockey League).
Notwithstanding Putin's wishes and the oligarchs' efforts, Russia's international athletic fortunes have not approached those of the communist era, particularly in winter sports. When Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia became independent republics in the early 1990s, they took with them some of the finest winter sports facilities of the Soviet Union, leaving Russian athletes few domestic places to train. It quickly showed: After finishing first in the medal count in Lillehammer in 1994, Russia hasn't placed higher than third. A sixth-place finish in Vancouver three years ago, with just three golds among 15 medals, led to the forced resignation of Russian Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev. It didn't matter that he was said to have been Putin's old ski instructor.
The president, a karate black belt and former St. Petersburg city judo champion, is a sporting omnivore, whether skydiving, working a heavy bag, taking a Formula 1 car out for a spin or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes. The average Russian closely follows only a few winter sports, notably biathlon and figure skating, but the sport of the moment is hockey, and Putin has lashed himself to it. In early 2011, deciding he wanted to learn to skate, he engaged former NHL defenseman Alexei Kasatonov to give him late-night lessons. Within several months he was playing in pickup games and making cameos at youth tournaments. Putin's best friends own or run KHL teams, and Sochi mayor Pakhomov, a former player, is a fan too. There was huge pressure on the host Canadians to win hockey gold in Vancouver; in Sochi the burden on the home team figures to be even greater, if that's possible.
"During the Cold War the Soviet Union was able to deliver athletic successes that were a source of pride," says Natalia Roudakova, an assistant professor of communications at UC San Diego who studies Russian society and the media. "Now the sporting infrastructure is gone, coaches have gone abroad and, with corruption, much of the money for sports gets stolen. So Russia has a much smaller sports profile than the Soviet Union did. Objectively, it's unreasonable to expect Russia to be at the same level. But the expectations are still there, and when they're not met, there's disappointment and resentment.
"Last year was a sort of watershed in how people thought about Putin. His approval ratings are now [at their lowest since June 2000], and it's reached the point where people are willing to consider alternatives. So the Games are a chance for him to reverse his standing."
There are things that a Russian president, even Putin, can't control. And there are things that, by all appearances, he can. In February 2011 some 1.4 million Russians participated in a nationwide vote to choose the three Olympic mascots. Putin, in Sochi on the eve of the mascot election, publicly voiced his preference for a snow leopard—and, sure enough, that very creature comfortably won the final balloting. A hare and a polar bear took the other two mascot spots, leading an opposition politician to complain that the bear closely resembled the mascot of Putin's party.
Some animals, it would seem, are more equal than others.
The maps on the wall of the mayor's office capture Sochi in two dimensions. For a three-dimensional sense of the Olympic city, you must make the drive up Mount Akhun, whose summit commands most of the 90 miles of the Sochi littoral. The mountain is perfectly placed between the downtown area and the sprawl of Adler, a suburb where railroad hubs, highway interchanges, hotels and a new airport terminal are going up near the Olympic Park.
Back in the 1930s, after authorizing the construction of six miles of switchback road up Akhun, Soviet ruler Josef Stalin scoffed at the suggestion by sycophants that a statue of him be erected at the top. "What, am I dead?" he is said to have snorted. Instead he insisted on building an observation tower so anyone could enjoy the views. Today to the west, over the water, you can catch sunsets worthy of Key West. To the north the parkland and ochre-colored neoclassical buildings of central Sochi huddle around the port. To the east nearly unbroken forest ramps up to the snowfields of the Caucasus and Krasnaya Polyana. And to the south, on an apron of marshy land that juts into the sea, the Olympic Park, the first for a Winter Games, is nearly complete. It has space enough for 75,000 visitors, yet it's so compact that an athlete can walk from the Olympic Village to any venue within 10 minutes, if not the five Putin promised.
Prison labor built the road to the Akhun summit on Stalin's orders. Legend has it that the Soviet leader promised the workers their freedom if they could complete the task in 100 days. It took them 102, and, so goes the story, all the laborers were killed, their bodies buried beneath the roadway.
Perhaps some of the 70,000-plus workers scurrying to finish the Olympic infrastructure will keep this tale in mind. Putin may not be Stalin, who had a dacha in Sochi, but the Russian president has at least partially rehabilitated the genocidal strongman, praising him for industrializing the Soviet Union and winning World War II. And for all the talk of how the Olympics will signify the arrival of a new Russia, only Putin's brand of authoritarianism gave the IOC confidence that the requisite facilities would materialize in six years' time. Chernyshenko, the organizing committee chief, regards the initial lack of venues and infrastructure as an opportunity. "When you begin with a blank canvas, you're free to paint a masterpiece," he says. "It would have been unforgivable for us to begin with the natural advantage of nothing and not create a dream project."
In fact, there was something before: a community of several thousand "old believers," devout Orthodox Christians whose homes had sat for generations on the land now transformed into the Olympic Park. The government reportedly spent more than $300 million to resettle or compensate them, and it agreed to leave untouched their cemetery, nestled in a grove of trees now adjacent to the Fisht Stadium.
To build every venue from scratch may have been ambitious, but to stage a Winter Games in a subtropical city in the age of global warming seems delusional. Will there be snow? (Go ahead and ask. Organizers want you to.) Ha, will there be snow! they reply. Moist breezes from the Black Sea, doubling back over the Caucasus, should dump on the slopes great quantities of what local officials call "the champagne of powders," Mother Nature's blessing on Mother Russia. If not, don't worry: This is the country that scrambles military planes laden with silver iodide to bend the weather to its will, emptying the skies of rain for a Victory Day parade in Moscow or a Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg. Three years ago Sochi organizers began socking away in vast crypts some 195,000 cubic yards of snow, chemically treated so it loses only a fraction of its volume. (If the stuff should be pressed into service next year, do not adjust your TV sets: It tends to have a grayish hue.) And if that were to fail, more than 400 snow guns, capable of producing at temperatures up to 50°, line the Olympic Alpine courses at Rosa Khutor. Each looks like a jet engine and, at a reported $42,000, costs about the same too.
The mountain venues have been designed with much forethought. The Sanki Sliding Center is safe and relatively slow, with three strategically placed inclines, to avert crashes like the one that killed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver. The Laura Nordic venue features dedicated courses and stadiums for both cross-country and biathlon, as well as its own satellite Endurance Village, so Nordic athletes can live at the same elevation at which they'll compete. The RusSki Gorki Jumping Center nestles into a hillside to protect ski jumpers from crosswinds. And for the first time the Alpine venue will feature a common finish area for the men and women, slalom and downhill alike, thanks to a design by former Swiss gold medalist Bernhard Russi.
On a clear day, before he throws himself down the mountain, a skier will be able to glance to his left and catch the Black Sea shimmering on the horizon. "Ice palaces can be built anywhere," says Alexander Belokobylsky, the director of the Rosa Khutor resort, "but for mountain venues you have to show that you've got it, and we did. When the IOC saw the slopes, they knew they could be transformed into Olympic-quality courses. Sochi is a unique place. If you don't come to see it, you don't realize what's possible."
Those who come to Krasnaya Polyana for quaint Caucasian architecture, or even a faux Alpine village in the mold of Park City or Whistler, will be disappointed. Rosa Khutor has six Western chain hotels, as well as an information center identical to the Stalinist train station in central Sochi, only with sloped roofs to slough off the snow. It's not old Europe but arriviste Russia, with more than a whiff of Dubai.
"It's hard to break stereotypes about old and cold Russia," says Alexandra Kosterina, the organizing committee's vice president for communications. But Sochi organizers will try, perhaps too hard. At least $52 million is to be poured into the opening and closing ceremonies, not far from the $65 million price tag for last summer's festivities in London. Chernyshenko, a youthful and smooth English speaker, is a former advertising and marketing executive with a knack for Twitter. Every member of the press will stay in a brand-new hotel, lest he conclude that frayed carpet is permitted in the New Russia. Even the Games' slogan—Hot.Cool.Yours.—has an infomercial slickness to it. The venues, though dazzling and purpose-built, have strikingly modest capacities: only 12,000 seats, for instance, in the main hockey arena, the Bolshoy Ice Dome, and such small seating areas in the mountains that organizers are weighing the pleas of international federations to expand them. It's almost as if the goal were to build a studio set for international TV.
Anti-Putin intellectuals and cynics parody Hot.Cool.Yours., offering up Fifty.Billion.Dollars. That's the latest estimate of the cost of the Sochi Games, up from $12 billion, the figure the president cited in Guatemala City. That would make these the most expensive Olympics in history, inflated not only because of the need to fill that blank canvas but also because of widespread corruption.
Even the most transparent Olympic hosts have suffered through procurement or bribery controversies, whether in Sydney, Salt Lake City or London. In Sochi problems emerged almost from the moment construction began. Some migrant workers complained of abusive conditions and late payment or nonpayment of wages, suggesting that someone was siphoning off money. By 2010 a mafia war had gone public, with one capo, Eduard (the Carp) Kakosyan, gunned down while he sat in a Sochi café, a sign of jockeying for a piece of the action. A Russian businessman claimed that year that he had landed a construction contract through a $6 million payoff to a senior Kremlin official. Then, late last year, the Interior Ministry charged two private subcontractors with overstating invoices and expense accounts for the Fisht Stadium and the Sanki Sliding Center by more than $250 million. As for the $7.8 billion highway and high-speed rail line connecting the coastal and mountain clusters, a wag in the Russian press calculated that it would have been cheaper to pave them with a layer of foie gras eight inches thick. Last week, in what was surely an act of stagecraft, Putin threw a nationally televised fit upon learning (or appearing to learn) that the ski jumping center would cost more than six times its budgeted $40 million. The Olympic official responsible for the venue was fired the next day.
"Corruption is our air," says Pavel Vlasov-Mrdulyash, the former publisher of slon.ru, a Huffington Post--style website. "It's what our economy breathes. And this is a problem for the Sochi Olympics. But Russia really needs these Games. We are a new country, and we do need to reintroduce ourselves. We need big projects. We need to run, not just go, forward to the future."
A mid the various Olympic clusters, it's easy to overlook the gracious and pedigreed city of Sochi, 15 miles from the Olympic Park and another microclimate entirely from the mountains. And that would be a shame. A sun-drenched languor permeates the place. Of all the statistics local officials spout, Chernyshenko has a favorite. "The birth rate in Sochi has increased by 38% from the time we started our Olympic journey to last year," he says. "It's a reflection of the confidence of the local inhabitants."
The city's history as a resort dates to the 1890s, when oligarchs of the day went for the healing properties of the hydrogen sulfide in the water. The Soviets built Roman-style palaces to serve as sanatoriums and hostels, some for the party elite but others for trade unions, so even the average worker could enjoy a salubrious if Spartan summer vacation. As a result millions of ordinary Russians of a certain age have been to Sochi, to take the cure or a holiday. That's why so many scratched their heads upon learning that the Olympics the city would host would be the Winter Games.
The city is plausibly Asian, lying on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, and its 430,000 people represent more than 100 ethnicities. The markets have a Levantine air, their stalls brimming with chestnut honey, feta, dried apricots and Krasnodar tea, which comes from the northernmost tea fields in the world. In the Glade of Friendship in Riviera Park, cosmonauts have planted magnolia trees to commemorate their journeys in space. (The tree that honors Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space, is stunted because tourists have plucked so many of its leaves as souvenirs.) At the Maritime Terminal by the port, an oligarch can moor his yacht and, just steps away, pick up garish, pricey Olympic gear at the Bosco Shop, Russia's answer to Niketown. At the Dolphinarium anyone can buy a ticket to swim with dolphins; at the adjacent Oceanarium you can watch through plate glass as a guy in scuba gear feeding the fish removes his mouthpiece, flashes a smile and exhales five Olympic rings.
And you can take the by-appointment-only tour of Stalin's dacha. It's hidden in plain sight on a wooded hillside in the middle of town, its shingled and stuccoed exterior painted green as camouflage. With concealed keyholes on the doors and bulletproof sides to the couches, it's a monument to paranoia. In the cinema room Stalin would watch Charlie Chaplin movies alone, so no one could see his emotions.
It's said that Putin too has a dacha in Sochi. It's also said that he has a chalet up in Krasnaya Polyana. As in Stalin's time, no one seems to know exactly where, or is willing to say. But however inscrutable Putin seems in that portrait in the mayor's office, his emotions will be very much on display a year from now, at the Bolshoy arena in the Olympic Park, come Hockey Night in Russia.
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More reports from SI writers on the run-up to the 2014 Winter Games, including Alexander Wolff on Sochi's Olympic firsts and Brian Cazeneuve on new medal sports, at SI.com/mag