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THE PUTIN OLYMPICS HIGH HOPES
Alexander Wolff
February 18, 2013
IN LESS THAN A YEAR, THE WINTER GAMES WILL OPEN IN THE SUBTROPICAL RESORT OF SOCHI. EVERY VENUE WAS BUILT FROM SCRATCH. WILL IT ALL WORK? WILL THERE BE SNOW? RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN GUARANTEES IT—AND HE'S USED TO GETTING HIS WAY
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February 18, 2013

The Putin Olympics High Hopes

IN LESS THAN A YEAR, THE WINTER GAMES WILL OPEN IN THE SUBTROPICAL RESORT OF SOCHI. EVERY VENUE WAS BUILT FROM SCRATCH. WILL IT ALL WORK? WILL THERE BE SNOW? RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN GUARANTEES IT—AND HE'S USED TO GETTING HIS WAY

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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.

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."

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