"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.