Sochi 2014: a game Vladimir Putin must win

The Russian leader is putting national prestige on the line in Sochi, says Justin Rowlatt

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Sochi 2014: a game Vladimir Putin must win
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Justin Rowlatt

You only have to take a stroll around the Olympic park at Sochi to get a sense of just how important the Winter Olympics are to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. When I visited in late autumn, they were still putting the final touches to the facilities, but already it was clear that these will be among the most spectacular Winter Games in history.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. They are also, by some margin, the most expensive Games in the history of the Olympic movement.

With a bill of more than $50 billion (£30 billion), they are estimated to have cost more than eight times what the 2010 host city, Vancouver, spent. The cost of Sochi makes even the £8.77 billion Britain paid for London’s 2012 summer Olympic and Paralympic Games seem quite reasonable. So what has Mr Putin got for all his billions?

He’s certainly been clear what he wants.

President Putin sees the 2014 Games as a showcase – a shop window – for the new Russia he has created since he took power. He wants the world to see just how far his country has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the 1990s when Russia suffered an economic collapse that dwarfed even the impact of the 1929 Wall Street crash.

“The public attitude to Russia became very negative and pessimistic,” the President told reporters, including the BBC’s Andrew Marr, at a news conference in Sochi a couple of weeks ago.

“We have to pull ourselves together and realise that we can deliver large-scale projects on time and with high standards.”

Hosting the Olympics provides nations with a unique opportunity to show the world they can do just that, but brings unwanted attention, too. Much of the coverage of Sochi in the western media has been negative, focusing on spiralling costs, corruption, the risk of terrorism and Russia’s restrictive anti-gay laws. And President Putin hasn’t made life easy for himself. He’s chosen the most extraordinary location for a winter Games. Sochi isn’t nestled in some mountain eyrie, it’s a subtropical Black Sea resort with palm trees and beachside bars.

It’s this combination of beach and snow that President Putin loves. When I was there – for my recent series Russia on Four Wheels – most of the country was already in the grip of the first frosts of the notorious Russian winter. But in Sochi you could cast off your coat; the average temperature was a balmy 20 degrees Celsius.

Even less than a fortnight before the Games began, it was 14 degrees, warmer than London. Moscow, by contrast, was an icy minus 14.

The ice and snow are a few miles away from Sochi, up on the slopes of the mighty Caucasus mountains. The Caucasus are one of the great mountain ranges of the world and contain Europe’s highest peak, Mount Elbrus – a full half-mile higher than Mont Blanc in the Alps.

But having two separate locations has inflated costs. Russia has built a staggeringly expensive new road and railway link, winding up from the coast to the new resort city of Krasnaya Polyana. Not only that. The organisers were so anxious about whether it would actually snow that they spent a few more million dollars on a Finnish snow expert. He showed me the great trenches he had had dug on the mountainside, where he’d stockpiled hundreds of thousands of tons of last year’s snow, just in case.

No expense was spared on the facilities either. The coastal cluster boasts five separate stadiums, including one dedicated to curling. The largest, the Fisht Olympic Stadium, will be used only for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Up in the mountains, there are brand-new ski runs and jumps, as well as the state-of-the-art Sanki Sliding Centre where the bobsleigh, skeleton and luge will be held. The facilities I saw were stunning.

The big fear now is terrorism. According to reports in the Russian media, a further two billion dollars is being spent on the security cordon the state has thrown up around Sochi. That may be exaggerated, but there’s no question huge resources are being poured in to protect the Olympic venues. So long as that cordon holds, the Sochi Games will be hailed as a success.

But whether they will succeed by President Putin’s own measure – transforming international attitudes to the world’s largest country – is another matter. Given all the negative publicity they have already attracted, you can’t help but wonder whether – whatever he says in public – Mr Putin will truly judge his Olympic extravaganza a success.

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