As the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver come to a close, the world will begin to look more closely at the city of Sochi, the Black Sea resort that will host the Games in 2014.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics is the first Winter Games to take place in a subtropical climate—yes, it’s true—an environment where you can see the snow-capped mountains from the beach. It will also be the first Olympic Games in Russia since the Moscow Summer Olympic Games in 1980, when a U.S.-led boycott, protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, kept 24 countries from participating.
Most significantly for Russia, the games are the catalyst for one of the most comprehensive makeovers of an Olympic city in recent history. More than $6 billion of investment is earmarked for Sochi to transform this provincial Russian town with a decrepit infrastructure into a metropolis fit for gods.
With private companies reluctant to invest, the Russian government and state-friendly companies are digging deep to fund the Games, a prestige project that is seen as vital to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who often spend their vacations in Sochi at government residences.
After Sochi won the right to host the games, Putin, who personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee, said the honor was not “only a recognition of Russia’s achievements in sports, it is, there is no doubt, an assessment of our country.”
Nearly all of the sports facilities have to be built from scratch. There are too few roads, too much traffic and inadequate public transportation. The supply of electricity is unreliable and there are not enough hotel rooms.
Although the city is fast becoming one large construction site, many residents, despite all inconvenience, are looking forward to the pay-off.
A 3D model of Sochi’s 2014 Olympic Games stadium
“There is a lot being built,” said Viktor Tsevava, editor of the local newspaper Nash Dom Sochi (Our House is Sochi). “The Olympic Games will last for two weeks, but then everything will stay in Sochi.”
Sochi is on the east side of the Black Sea, on a spot where the Greeks landed more than 2,000 years ago. The city is relatively young with the name appearing on maps atthe end of the 19th century.
It was only when Stalin chose the city as the site for his summer dacha in the 1930s that it began to expand and become the preferred resort town of the Soviet Union.
Alexei Shchusev, who designed Lenin’s tomb, was among the architects who came to the city in the 1930s, as it became a favorite not only for the elite but for workers who were rewarded with trips to the seaside and stays at state-built spas.
The official Sochi flag has a very busy design, featuring not only a palm tree and a sun but a cloud with snow emerging from it. The Games play on this unique proximity of sea and snow with two structural clusters for the Games, one in the mountains at Krasnaya Polyana where the snow sports will be played out, and a coastal cluster that will feature ice hockey, ice skating and other ice-based sports.
One of the main legacies of the games, according to the Sochi organizing committee, is “to rejuvenate the city,” leading to a “significant improvement in the quality of life of the people in Sochi.”
Video by Vladislav Kuzmichev
The games will leave behind new hotels, business centers, concert halls and many other major facilities; a new state-of-the-art airport terminal has already been built.
With Sochi also hosting the Paralympics, the aim is also to make the Russian city accessible for the disabled, a huge step forward in a country where even the capital is virtually impossible for any wheelchair user to navigate. But for some Sochi citizens, the city’s overhaul is disruptive and unwelcome.
Russia passed a law that allowed the state to purchase land for the Winter Olympic Games. Residents in Imeretinskaya—the Sochi neighborhood where the coastal complex will be built—have protested, saying they are being harassed to sell their homes, but are being offered compensation lower than the market value.
Photos by Vladislav Kuzmichev
“They are taking away the rights of people,” said Valery Suchkov, head of a residents’ association, which is campaigning against any forced sales. “We are like victims-in-waiting.”
Hundreds of people have been told that they have to move out of their homes by the end of March. After protests and media reports, 100 plots of land will not be bought up after all, said Taimuraz Bolloyev, head of Olimpstroi, which is in charge of construction—a decision that, some locals said, shows the government is beginning to listen. But some seizures appear unavoidable.
Another fear for many is the environmental impact of the construction close to the proposed port and in the Sochi national park, where the bobsled and luge track and the mountain Olympic Village are set to be built.
President Medvedev has ordered constant monitoring so that no damage is done, but local and international ecological organizations like the World Wildlife Fund say that there are still strong concerns about damage to the park and the marshlands near the port.
Another worry is whether the $6.25 billion—lowered from an earlier forecast of $12 billion because of cost-saving technologies and measures, according to local officials—will be well accounted for.
With even the Russian president saying that corruption in Russia is at epidemic levels, there are fears that big sums will be siphoned off.
In a mayoral election last year, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, accused authorities of turning a blind eye to corruption in Olympic funding. With little or no access to local television, he came in a distant second to Anatoly Pakhomov, the incumbent and a member of the dominant United Russia party.
In the city itself, construction is moving ahead. The foundations of the main ice arena, which will host ice hockey, have been laid. They have also broken ground on the Ice Palace, which will host the ice skating competition.
“There are no worries. The construction is going according to plan, but we constantly tell the organizers, 'Don’t lose time!'” said Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, in an interview earlier this month with the Russian financial newspaper Vedomosti.
Vladislav Kuzmichev, a recent visitor to Sochi, and business editor for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, noted that the journey from the airport to the city center, “now takes only 20 minutes instead of 90, thanks to the ring road, which was opened last year.”
In other praise, he added that “the airport road was also upgraded and you no longer have to meander between a cliff and a precipice.”
Roads have begun to improve, agreed Tsevava, although he admitted that for now, four years before the start of the games, there is still a lot of congestion in Sochi. “Nobody likes to live in a building site,” he said.
How is the city of Sochi preparing for the 2014 Olympics?
The city’s administration has been charged with the task of making Sochi as convenient as possible for residents and guests, and adapting it to the needs of the physically challenged.
There isn’t one health-care facility that isn’t being rebuilt. Last year we built a new hospital and equipped it with the latest technology. We have renovated more than 300 apartment blocks. In all, by the time of the Olympics, we will have renovated 70% of the city’s residential buildings. We will also do some additional planting of trees and shrubs. In the winter of 2014, thanks to the particularities of our climate, flowers will be blooming.
Every residential building already has its passport: a plan of how it should look by the Olympics. The owners of these buildings have been given the chance to refurbish their building’s exterior without having to pay professional designers and architects. They will only need to pay for materials and labor. And if they don’t have the means, we will extend them credit and pay the interest ourselves. City residents will have to pay only the main part of the debt out of pocket.
And if they don’t have the means to pay even the main part of the debt? Will they have to forfeit their house to pay the debt?
We will defend the property rights of those city dwellers who are unable for one reason or another to pay for the renovations. We are now in the process of ascertaining who really is unable to pay. Of course, if we’re talking about an old woman who lives alone and whose relatives don’t help her, then the matter will be resolved at the expense of the municipality. Some $300 million is being spent on improvements to the city. This means not only buildings, but plantings, wheelchair accessibility, and public toilets for everyone including the physically challenged.
What other changes are in store for the city?
By the Olympics the city will have a fundamentally different look. For example, a new embankment will have been built — $100 million has been earmarked for this project. The current embankment will be turned into a street and the new one created with poured earth at the water’s edge — this is the same construction principle that was used at Dubai Palm Island. Only the scale of our construction will be more modest.
Sochi is also building eight mini-ports of call and launching a sea taxi. Since the city extends along the sea (Sochi is the second longest city in the world), the sea taxi will be as fast a regular taxi and make for less traffic on the roads. In March of this year the Sochi airport will open a new air-and-rail complex.
And then let’s not forget about the development of the mountain cluster. By the Olympics we will have four first-class ski resorts. One of them (Roza-khutor) will be the largest ski resort in Russia and one of the best in Europe.
How much will tourism in Sochi increase after the Olympics?
Sochi will be a genuine year-round resort. This will give enormous potential for the development of the tourist business here. Speaking of four- and five-star hotels, we will have an additional 8,000 rooms — nearly one-sixth of our current capacity. The city also has private hotels; their total capacity is roughly the same as the official capacity.
In Sochi everything consists of three clusters. The first is the beach cluster where three palaces are being built, a skating rink, a media center, the Olympic village, a multi-use retail center, and a yacht club. After the Olympics, these sites will all have their post-Olympic uses. For instance, the skating rink will be turned into an 8,000 sq. meter exhibition complex. I’ve already mentioned the mountain cluster. When construction there is finished it will spur the city’s development, its economy — with new jobs, incomes, taxes. The third cluster is the center of the city where there is already much to see.
Turning Sochi into a year-round resort will also improve the quality of services. As it stands now, many of the people who work in Sochi do so temporarily — the resort functions only four months a year. Temporary workers do not give quality service. Now people will see the long run and feel differently about their work.
In Soviet times there was no particular need to develop Sochi — people came here anyway. As a result, the city was stagnant for 20 years and fell into decay. Now we are doing everything to correct the situation.
One reason why people don’t want to go to Sochi is the high prices. It’s cheaper to go to Egypt than to vacation in a Russian city.
That is a problem. We calculated that if things were properly organized the cost of a Moscow-Sochi plane ticket could be 20% of what it is now: $17-$20 instead of $100-$150. We have invited low-cost companies to serve Sochi. We are putting together a sort of trade intervention.
At the same time we are lowering the prices of food. Before I became mayor there were no supermarkets in Sochi. Now there is one, though not large, while another enormous one is nearly finished. We’ve also introduced farmers’ markets. We give them space free of charge on condition that they do not raise prices above a certain level. As a result, the price of a kilogram of meat (2.2 lbs.) has gone down to $5. The prices of other goods are also significantly lower. And we do not allow anything to be stored. So the producer tries to sell everything he has brought with him within three days.
As soon as we started doing this, the prices at other points of trade fell sharply. Tenderloin steak in the city now costs less than $7. A kilogram of apples costs $1.50. Apples used to cost up to $3 a kilo. Now we are considering setting up stalls along the water so that local producers can sell their berries — the reason why many Russians used to come to south. And we will help producers with trade credits.
Sochi is not adapted to receive foreign tourists. On the way in from the airport I didn’t see a single sign in English. Will this situation change?
Of course. There are now three federal programs in Sochi. The first is a federal special-purpose program to build infrastructure and roads. This includes the Adler-Krasnaya Polyana car-and-rail road as well as construction of Sochi’s new power station and an underwater gas line. The second is a regional special-purpose program which covers the cost of construction and reconstruction of residential buildings, polyclinics and hospitals.
We analyzed both programs and realized that there wouldn’t be enough money to make the city convenient and to train residents to work with foreign tourists. We will have to teach drivers, maids, and waiters, prepare volunteers, and conduct a cultural Olympics. The idea arose of giving Sochi a unified architectural appearance. As a result, a third program was created which is called “Sochi: A Hospitable City”. We still have time to put it through. We are planning to hold a tender among companies whose business is education; we’ll create an Olympic university.
What is your biggest headache today?
The main problem is the mentality of our people. They don’t yet have the proper culture of behavior in public places, a desire to maintain the public order.
But you can’t change people’s mentality in four years.
We’ll change it. We’re holding meetings in almost every residential building; we’ve decided on a program to fight uncultured smoking. We won’t ban it entirely, but in squares and parks, please don’t smoke. In every square and park there is a café with special areas for smoking. On the beach we plan to build separate zones or cabins for smokers. Naturally, we’ll also promote a healthy lifestyle.
What would you call your greatest achievement?
You can already see how the city is changing. Logistics are now convenient with very good communications. It’s plain to see. The city is different.
In Sochi there was a fairly serious dispute about the property of people whose houses will have to be torn down because of the construction of Olympic sites. Has this problem been resolved?
Disputes between property owners and builders will always exist. The people who will have to be relocated want as much as they can get from the government; the government wants to pay them as little as possible. But you have to give credit to our country’s leadership: both the president and the prime minister said that the proprieties must be observed.
Construction is construction. And there was some speculative waiting. As mayor, I defended the interests of my voters, talked to representatives from Olympstroi (the Olympics construction team). There was a scandal when Olympstroi lowered its compensation offer to such an extent that the governor of Krasnodar Krai and I had to speak up for residents. We did some good. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak came down — he knows how to talk to people. When the conversation was over he said that we needed to help residents. Their land has now been valued at $60,000 a hundredth of a hectare. That number should satisfy city residents since it will allow them to move to new buildings without having to pay extra.
Olympic-host-to-be Sochi is a costal city located in the Krasnodar Krai (one of 83 subjects of the Russia Federation). With preparations underway to meet guests from all around the world at the next Winter Games in 2014, RN’s correspondent questioned the Deputy Governor Alexander Saurin about what to expect.
In preparation for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which sites are being built at the expense of the Krasnodar Krai budget?
Krasnodar is mainly financing infrastructure projects — the modernization of electric power, municipal works and transportation logistics. We are also underwriting the repair of schools and hospitals. They will serve the city both during and after the Olympics. And we are financing the construction of an indoor skating rink and the main media center.
In addition, the Krasnodar Krai administration intends to earmark funds to build a multi-use retail center like Moscow’s EuroPark. We plan to make it an attraction for Sochi guests not only during the Olympics, but afterwards. The International Olympic Committee supports the idea.
All told Krasnodar Krai plans to build 61 projects for the Olympics. For the last two years we have been working almost round the clock, at this point we’re running even a little ahead of schedule.
How much investment has Krasnodar Krai earmarked for preparations for the Olympics?
Seventy billion rubles ($2.3 billion) out of the Krasnodar Krai budget. Another 30 billion rubles ($1 billion) will come from investment funds. That is roughly 10% of the total expenses for the Olympics.
Those are investments in construction. How much will be spent to adapt the city to receive international guests? After all, Sochi residents speak poor English and the city has almost no signs in foreign languages.
With the help of federal departments we are at work on a special program called “Sochi: A Hospitable City”. The program is now being approved and should go into effect this year. It is precisely aimed at preparing the city for guests. The program provides for everything, including teaching city residents English — and not just ordinary residents, but doctors, volunteers. The program also provides funds to give the city the proper look. We have counted 215 additional measures that will allow us to achieve the proper rating and to say that the city has progressed not only in terms of construction, but as an international tourist center of the future.
The planned investment in this program is 36 billion rubles ($1.2 billion).
What is Krasnodar Krai’s biggest headache right now?
One answer would be something said by Jean-Claude Killy, Chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission-Sochi, and often quoted by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak: “It’s like a game of tennis with 200 or 300 balls all coming at you at the same time. Miss one, and you’ve blown the whole thing.”
The main thing for us now is to maintain the pace of preparations for the Olympics. Our calculations show that we can finish our work even a little ahead of schedule, but we need a comprehensive solution, not victory in separate blocks. We hired construction companies that offered new technologies that allow one to build at accelerated rates without sacrificing quality.
What will happen to the Olympic sites after the Olympics?
The indoor skating rink I mentioned will be turned into an exhibition center which will do very good things for the business life of both Krasnodar Krai and the city of Sochi. The media center will be turned into a shopping mall. Today in Sochi we have no large malls.
Overall, though, we don’t plan to take down or convert any of the sites financed by Krasnodar Krai after the Olympics. We are creating a legacy for the city. I think the Olympics will give Sochi and Krasnodar Krai new impetus for development.
When will the Olympics recover its outlay?
The outlay for all the infrastructure sites should be recovered fairly soon, by our calculations. When, for example, will the new water supply system begin to make money? The very next day after it’s put into operation — if the city’s need for it is confirmed by the General Plan.
But we’re also counting on the effect of the magnitude. It’s one thing when you’re talking about a provincial city, another thing when you mean to build an international-class resort. Even the IOC says that we need to look for another downhill skiing center like the one that will be put up outside Sochi in Roza-khutor. When all the construction is finished, Sochi will have at least three main attractions for tourists: Imeretinka, where the main indoor Olympic sites are now being built, the Olympic village and multi-use retail center, Krasnaya Polyana (a mountain cluster specializing in sports) and the existing city center, where there are also many things to see and do. In Imeretinka, by the way, in addition to the skating rink and media center, we will also keep the huge ice arena and stadium for 40,000 people (the site of the opening and closing ceremonies in 2014).
Furthermore, during the construction stage, we plan to receive preferences since we are hiring local companies. Right now 95% of the construction companies working on Olympic sites funded by Krasnodar Krai are Krasnodar firms. And we are watching closely to be sure that the workers they hire are all from Krasnodar too. This allows us to create jobs and guarantee tax monies going into the budget. And the companies themselves are having a much easier time weathering the international financial crisis.
For us it’s also very important that federal structures and companies from other regions ready to register with the tax authorities come to Krasnodar Krai.