Of all the adjectives that network broadcasters will use to describe Sochi, Russia, in the coming weeks, we’re unlikely to hear the word “frozen.” Sochi is one of Russia’s southernmost points, directly in the subtropics on the same latitude as the French Riviera and the city of Venice. Most of the year, and throughout its history, the seaside town has been a summer resort, welcoming sunbathers eager for a respite from Moscow’s biting cold.
One reason Sochi was chosen for the Olympics, aside from Vladimir Putin’s personal pitch to the Olympic committee in 2007, was the assurance from Russia’s Olympic committee that snow would be plentiful. If it didn’t come the natural way from the sky, then it could be made—to the tune of 15 million, to be exact, expected by the time the games start on February 7. That cost, along with others like security, and has made Sochi the most expensive Winter Olympics ever held. It’s more expensive, in fact, than all of the past Winter Olympics combined. The 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City cost $2.5 billion. Russia’s have already approached $51 billion.
Cynics see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal attention to Sochi as an effort to cement his legacy as a historic leader. But on a grander scale, the Olympics are an opportunity for the country often defined by its stiff politics and limits on free speech to paint a portrait of a softer, largely misunderstood Russia. The two-week spectacle comes with a chance to say to the world that not only is Russia an enviable place with impressive infrastructure, good weather, and a strong economy, but that it’s open for business.
Painting that portrait hasn’t come cheap, as Russian scholar Leon Aaron points out in a fascinating essay on the games’ preparations. Securing Sochi as the venue has meant expelling people from their homes to build bigger homes and, at least in one case, a palatial lodge rumored to be designed for Putin himself. To maintain safety, given the low-simmering jihad in the North Caucuses as well as the ongoing civil war 700 miles away in Syria, Russia has erected an umbrella of surveillance. Drones will fly overhead during the games. Internet and phone communications will be intercepted for signs of threats. The U.S. State Department, according to Aaron, has even warned business travelers to Sochi to be careful about competitive trade secrets that could end up in the hands of their Russian competitors.
Unflattering p.r. is common for Olympic cities. In the run-up to the excitement, commentators have little to focus on but the cost overruns and the arm twisting necessary to ensure the opening ceremony begins on time. Once the athletes arrive and the cauldron is lit, the world’s attention tends to turn to the triumphant stories of athletes and whose country is atop the medal stand.
But as with any two-week sports festival, it will undoubtedly come to what happens after the games that will indicate Russia’s success at redefining itself to the world. Olympic venues built specially for the games rarely get used once the crowds leave. A photography project last year shows how billions spent to prepare for the Olympics usually leaves a trail of crumbling stadiums in communities that never had use for them in the first place. That’ll be especially true in Russia, once Sochi returns to being a quiet, albeit much higher profile, beach resort.
Perhaps, though, it will all be worth it. If Russia indeed does overcome the challenges of building a world-class ski resort in a beach town, of suppressing terrorist threats, and of hosting a games that plays well on TV, it’ll have a resume unlike any prior host city’s. The branding of a new dawn for Russia, in that case, may well be deserved.