Let it snow, please, for the Sochi Olympics

February 6, 2013

The Winter Olympics are just one year away, opening Feb. 7, 2014, so perhaps there’s still time for the press people to figure out how to deal with journalists, for hotels to provide WiFi and for the organizers to turn rain into snow.

Yes, it rained here this week — hard — and not just on the subtropical coast, where enclosed ice rinks are frozen nicely, but up in the mountains 30 miles away. Oh, and the very top peak above the Roza Khutor resort was closed for fear of an avalanche. Skiers and snowboarders coming down from lower elevations, at 4,900 and 3,700 feet, wore raincoats over their parkas.

Thirty-two degrees and pouring. Maybe these are the Olympics where they’ll run the halfpipe holding umbrellas.

“It’s really bad up there,” said Konstantin Chernyshov, a skier getting off a gondola amid a stream of volunteers. “Maybe if we could have gone to the top it would be all right, but they closed it in case of avalanche.”

Whether it will snow has been an underlying concern of the Olympics, but one that has been brought firmly under government control because President Vladimir Putin, who loves to ski in Sochi, has decided that these Games will show the real, modern, vibrant Russia to the world, snow included.


Sochi is the warmest place in Russia, a palm-fringed city that runs 25 miles along the Black Sea. Tuesday morning it was 54 degrees, and the day before it was around 60. Of course it’s colder in the mountains, some of which rise 8,000 feet, and it regularly snows — but regularly enough? That question has been answered in one of Russia’s slogans, “Sochi 2014: Guaranteed Snow.”

World competitions are being held here to test the various venues, and for December World Cup ski jumping events, the organizers put down 4,600 cubic meters of snow, which was gathered last year and stored nearby. Snowmaking machines are at the ready, but they can’t replace Mother Nature on a huge mountain range.

“Snow in February in Sochi is guaranteed,” Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said in December. “In case of warm weather, we have prepared our backup plan.”

Surely, a country that sent a man into space can make it snow for the Olympics, right? Wait — that was the Soviet Union, and these days Russia’s rockets regularly fall out of the sky.

But snow was dodgy in Vancouver in 2010, and life went on.

A few days ago, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak estimated that the Sochi Games will cost $51 billion, far more than Vancouver’s $6 billion. The previous big spender was China, at an estimated $40 billion for the 2008 Summer Games. There’s a lot to build here — this was a dated summer resort with little development in the mountains. Private investors are putting up 20,000 hotel rooms, but expensive roads, tunnels through mountains, railroads, bridges and power plants are also soaking up the rubles.

Progress is being made. The buses that take you from your airplane at the new airport to the terminal are already painted with sinewy, bare-chested men lunging for volleyballs. Hmmm. Isn’t that a summer sport? About two-thirds of the venues are finished. Roza Khutor looks like a perfect Alpine stage set, waiting for the extras to arrive. There’s a rushing river, a central clock tower and charming hotels that looked as if they floated in from Bavaria.

They say the hotels have WiFi, and they do, sort of. An old hotel not far from the Olympic Park on the coast has a sign advertising it. But tell a receptionist that you’re having trouble, and she gives you a look full of pity for your naivete. “Oh, you can’t get it in your room,” she said, as if that were a peculiar notion. “But it hasn’t been too good today. Come back and try in the lobby tomorrow.”

This is a week when media attention is desired, with Putin flying in to inspect the venues. (Wouldn’t you know the sun would shine warmly on him when he visited the biathlon stadium Wednesday — too warmly. It was 46 degrees on the mountain.) He attends a skating extravaganza Thursday, the big one-year-to-go day. So when a Kremlin PR agency invited this reporter to visit Sochi, have a tour and see how things were going, the reply was a yes, thank you.

But there are lists, and in Sochi the reporter was told her name was not on the list. Phone calls were made, along with pleas, threats and almost tears. A passport copy was e-mailed late at night from Moscow, hope was extended, and then silence. After the tour set out, the reporter found she had been expected. They never made it to the mountain. Too much fog, the organizers said, as rumors of rain circled.

So there was nothing to do Tuesday morning but hop on a local bus crammed with construction workers and villagers for an hour-and-a-half, $2.25 ride to Roza Khutor. The windows steamed; the view was spectacular.

Eventually, damp riders started appearing. Those boarding on Defenders of the Caucasus Street in Krasnaya Polyana, just before the resort, were drenched. The roadside had bits of snow, but not even enough to cause a D.C. traffic jam.

On the way into Krasnaya Polyana, illuminated snowflake ornaments were strung along a fence, as if in hope.

And so the countdown begins, one year to the Olympics, when, as always, some of the most unlikely of dreams will be achieved. Maybe it will even snow.

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