How Sochi dressed up on a $51 billion budget
SOCHI, Russia — The first thought is that this is Olympic Park's second -best hockey arena?
It's called Shayba, after the Russian word for “puck,” and it's a gem of dynamic design with its swirling, circular structure on the outside, a compact, colorful 7,000-seat rink area on the inside. When the U.S. women's hockey team fended off Finland, 3-1, in the tournament opener on Saturday, the place was packed with flags flying against the bright blue backdrop that's standard in these Games, making for a scene that moved former NHL star and Russian women's team general manager Alexei Yashin to observe from the seats, “It's amazing, isn't it? We're very proud.”
If Lake Placid were built today, it would look like this. And then it would move. Because in this case, the Russians built it to be easily deconstructed and moved elsewhere in the country.
But that's not the Miracle.
No, that would be the Bolshoy Ice Dome, the neighbor about 700 feet away inside the Olympic Park. It's the 12,000-seat home to most men's hockey games and the women's medal round. And as a certain hockey voice in Pittsburgh is fond of saying, you'd have to be here to believe it.
The outside is emblematic of a frozen drop, and the striking aluminum roof is studded by 38,000 LED lights that at night create the most dazzling effect in the park. The inside includes a glazed-glass concourse that allows for a clear view of the Caucasus Mountains.
Think of Consol Energy Center's face toward Downtown, but add to it what just might be the most extravagant arena-type structure built.
And that's where the second thought arrives like a bad bar bill: How does anyone pay for this? Moreover, is it worth it?
When Russia won the Olympic bid in 2007, President Vladimir Putin projected a $12 billion cost for the Games, in part to turn Sochi into “a world-class resort.” That figure is now estimated to wind up at $51 billion, which would dwarf Beijing's record $34 billion for the 2008 Summer Games and would blow away the $7 billion of the most recent Winter Games in Vancouver.
That's drawn the scowl of critics, mostly because it reflects poorly on the International Olympic Committee for overlooking possibly superior hosts — Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, were the other finalists — in the name of money. The IOC long has been riddled by corruption, and the Russians' reputation for the same made the marriage look doubly worse.
Add to that continuing angst over unpaid bills for workers and accusations that the Russians brought in 70,000 migrant workers to do some of the work under what human-rights groups called slave-labor conditions. The Russians have denied both all week, but they haven't countered with anything definitive.
Mix in that these Games are the antithesis of the green, efficient approaches of Vancouver and London, the former by having to build only a speedskating oval, the latter by cleverly using easily deconstructed eco-friendly materials. The structures of Sochi, by comparison, are mostly permanent, and the Olympic Park rose up from coastal ground south of downtown Sochi that barely was being used.
Finally, add in the voluminous evidence uncovered in recent months of kickbacks and other under-the-table affairs that erupted about the scope and cost of projects. Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk, prominent anti-Putin authors, penned an extended journal called “Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics,” accusing Putin and associates of placing the Games in a place where the project would have to be started from scratch and run up the highest bill. A ski jump that was supposed to cost $42 million ended up five times that. A road connecting Sochi proper and the Adler region where the Games are being held cost $9.4 billion, and a train $8.7 billion, despite the local population being less than 400,000.
Nemtsov and Martynyuk described it as “an unprecedented thieves' caper” with “abuse, corruption, petty tyranny, cronyism, nonprofessionalism and irresponsibility.”
The Russian way is to dismiss such charges with a shrug and eye the accuser as if he or she is mad. That won't change. Neither the government nor the IOC has any technical obligation to release such information, and it isn't expected.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the charismatic chief organizer of the Games, repeatedly corrects reporters using the $51 billion figure, preferring to focus on the $2.2 billion he says is the amount being invested in the actual Olympics. He called that “pretty similar to previous organizers.”
The opulence hardly stops with the sports, although nearly every other venue rivals those of hockey in beauty, practicality and modernity.
The infrastructure is immaculate, from the talking traffic lights to the three brilliantly lit tunnels that are part of that road to the Olympic Park train station that looks like a Krypton scene in a Superman film.
The working facilities are superior to all precedents. At the Main Media Centre, of all places, the floors are marble, the roof a 50-foot glass atrium, all immaculately decorated and imaginatively planned.
The fields of competition will have issues in any Olympics, and these are no exception. The curling arena had screws popping out of railings on its opening day. Skiers expressed concern about certain slopes. Some skaters have complained of soft ice resulting from humidity in the coastal region. But overall, the facilities are without parallel, and individual sporting federations are raving.
“I can say that Adler Arena is just amazing,” U.S. speedskater Heather Richardson said. “It's a true testament to our sport to have a place like that to compete here.”
Organizers are adamant the sports venues won't go to waste, as happened in Beijing and Athens, the previous two Olympics to go heavy on new structures. Most facilities, they say, will be used for national training programs. Bolshoy will try to host a permanent hockey team. Fisht Stadium, site of the Opening Ceremony, will be host to World Cup soccer matches in 2018.
The same, organizers say, will apply to the media work areas and residences, all of which are aimed at businesses or hotels as part of Putin's vision to make Sochi a long-term destination in the Caucasus.
The visual impact of the facilities to the billions watching on TV only assures that future, they say.
“The world will see a Sochi that is ready for tourism and business,” said the city's mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov.
How much of Russia shows up might be what counts the most. Most of the population lives in far colder climates, but their tourism generally sends them to other areas in Europe and Asia. Sochi didn't have enough tourism before the Olympics to have healthy occupancy rates for hotels, and some economists doubt the Games will change that.
The one area of near-universal agreement is that the Russians had the money to spend. Rich in natural resources, their $2 trillion economy is the world's eighth largest. If Sochi works into the distant future, the money gambled will be a pittance by comparison.