The 2014 Sochi Olympics

A Patchwork of Challenges

On February 7, 2014, the 22nd Winter Olympic Games will open in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Because these games will be the first Olympics hosted by Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they will be more than a mere athletic competition— they possess a singular symbolic character, important to Russia and particularly to Russian president Vladimir Putin. On the eve of the 119th session of the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala on July 4, 2007, at which the decision on the host city for the 2014 games would be made, Putin was the main Russian lobbyist for the Sochi project.

Putin considers the event to be a demonstration of the Russia’s post- Soviet potential and its growing role on the international stage, as well as visible proof of his success in overcoming the political chaos that followed the dissolution of the USSR. The Sochi Winter Olympics have also been interpreted by some as an integral part of Putin’s return to the presidency— an attempt to secure domestic support and prestige. According to the Russian leader, if Russia “failed to restore the territorial integrity of the country and stop the confrontation in the Caucasus in the form in which it was five to seven years ago, and was unsuccessful in resolving a variety of social and economic issues,” it would not be possible to hold an Olympic Games on Russian territory.

The choice of host city for these Olympics nevertheless creates a number of challenges for Russia. Sochi is a popular resort that has long held the informal status of the “summer capital” of Russia; its beaches and parks are favored vacationing spots for the country’s political elite. The Sochi area is one of the few places in the Russian Federation where snow is a rarity even in winter, so it is paradoxical that it was chosen as the venue for the premier global winter sports competition. The Sochi Games will be the first Winter Games in the history of the Olympics to be held in a subtropical climate.

According to Vladimir Putin’s official estimates, the cost for holding the “white Olympics” will 214 billion rubles (US$6.5 billion). 100 billion rubles (about $3.3 billion) will come from the state budget, while 114 billion rubles (about $3.45 billion) will come from private investments. However, an alternative estimate in June 2013 was approximately $50 billion. This figure would be the highest ever— in terms not only of the history of the Winter Games in modern times, but also in terms of the cost overruns compared to the initial bud get (which stood at $12 billion).

Climate and costs aside, holding the Games in Sochi presents a number of more difficult challenges. The Sochi area is the focal point of several thorny issues with geopolitical and security implications, and there will also be many difficulties related to the environment, transportation, housing, and public services.

Sergey Markedonov