Sochi Olympics are Putin’s chance to showcase Russia

The Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia. Picture: AP
The Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia. Picture: AP
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ONE year before Russia hosts its first Winter Olympics, the Black Sea resort of Sochi is a vast building site spreading for nearly 25 miles along the coast and 30 miles up into the mountains.

The current overall price tag for the games is $51 billion (about £32.6bn), more than four times as much as Russia estimated when it was awarded the Games in 2007. This would make Sochi the most expensive Olympics in history, surpassing the $40bn that China is believed to have splashed out for the 2008 summer Games in Beijing.

For Sochi, at least half the money is coming from state coffers, with most of the rest being put forward by state-controlled companies and Russian tycoons.

President Vladimir Putin has made the Olympics his personal project and, determined to use them to showcase a powerful and prosperous Russia, has spared no expense to make sure the event is a success.

Tomorrow, Mr Putin will be in Sochi to preside over a lavish celebration marking the one-year countdown to the opening ceremony on 7 February, 2014.

“The project is under his [Mr Putin’s] permanent control and we enjoy the full government support,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organising committee, said.

“He recognises the power of these Games, the greatest ever catalyst to accelerate positive change.”

The costs are high because they include extensive infrastructure development in addition to construction of the Olympic venues, almost all of which had to be built from scratch. Most of the sports venues have already been completed or will be finished in the next few months, while armies of workers are busy building hotels and additional facilities.

The scale of the construction is staggering, but Mr Chernyshenko is confident everything will be ready. He said: “We’re building all the infrastructure right on schedule and within the budget.”

The 2014 Games, which run from 7 to 23 February next year, will feature more than 3,000 athletes competing in seven sports and 15 disciplines for a total of 98 medal events.

With its lush subtropical climate, Sochi was previously known only as a summer sea resort where hotels with rude Soviet-style service catered to undemanding tourists from provincial Russia. The snow-capped peaks to the north-east saw little skiing – an elitist and unpopular sport in Soviet times.

But in recent years, the mountains above the city have been transformed into a modern ski resort, with cable cars, cosy chalets and new hotels.

Cross-country skiers who took part in a test event last weekend praised the courses, though they were taken aback by the high level of security.

“I’ve never been in a place where there’s this much security, this many security officers, this many checkpoints,” said Noah Hoffman, a member of the United States cross-country ski team. “It makes you feel very safe, but at the same time it’s a little bit of a hassle. I don’t know if there’s a big security threat here, but they certainly have everything under control.”

Russia is wary of an Islamic insurgency that has long troubled a patchwork of predominantly Muslim republics on the other side of the mountain range. The insurgency began in Chechnya during the separatist wars with Moscow in the 1990s and spread throughout the region.

In Dagestan, the current epicentre of the violence, bombings and shootings targeting police and other officials occur almost daily. In recent years, however, the terrorist attacks have largely been confined to the North Caucasus region, rarely spilling out into the rest of Russia.

To the south of Sochi lies Abkhazia, a breakaway part of Georgia allied with Russia, which has troops stationed there. Georgia lost its last remaining piece of territory in Abkhazia during a brief war with Russia in 2008. Relations between Russia and Georgia are only now beginning to thaw.

Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov said: “I can assure you that law enforcement agencies are taking unprecedented measures to protect our tourists from any danger. I’m confident that our Olympics are going to be the safest ones ever.”