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.