SOCHI, Russia – President Vladimir Putin likes to say that the 2014 Olympics are about far more than sports. He expects the Games to refashion Sochi, putting a little luxe into a tired Soviet resort. Call it oligarch chic.
The new look is on full display in the mountains, where parts of once-modest Krasnaya Polyana have gone baronial. It’s a style high on the imposing and low on the charm. Take a cable car up to Gorki 960 — elevation: 3,150 feet — and instead of scenic lodges, you’ll find pink hotels with grand Ionic columns and Moorish balconies reminiscent of Venetian Gothic architecture, all the rage in the 14th century. Cross the plaza and the grand arches feel so Italian Renaissance.
When spending $50 billion on the Olympics, apparently, a builder cannot afford to indulge the picturesque. Or ensure quality workmanship. Or even get the job done on time.
The back of one Gorki hotel is in such shambles — tiles hanging precariously off a wall, brick wall already crumbling — that it takes a moment to figure out whether they’re putting the building up or tearing it down. Sidewalks are cracked; curbs are uneven and gouged. Workers clean up the mud by hosing down the walkways with water, which quickly turns to ice in the freezing mountain air. The aroma of wet cement wafts along on the evening breeze.
And, with the Olympics opening Friday, one hotel lobby on Gornaya street, along the main square, was crammed with furniture in boxes Wednesday. A side street was filled with three cranes. A four-foot-high pile of drywall lay on another street. A welder working roadside sent fireworks-worthy sparks into the air.
Meeting with reporters in Sochi this week, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, defended the expenditures, the state of readiness and the choice of Russia as an Olympic host. Much of the $50 billion, he said, was spent on hotels, roads, bridges, electric grids and railroads, infrastructure that will improve citizens’ lives and develop tourism after the Olympics.
“You cannot speak of the costs for the Olympic Games when it comes to transforming a whole region from an old-fashioned summer resort to a modern, year-round sport, tourist and convention destination,” Bach said.
“These are not Olympic costs, this is creating infrastructure for the future of the people in this region, who will benefit for generations to come.”
For many Russians, however, the scene at Gorki 960, part of a large complex called Gornaya Karusel, reminds them of the corruption and overpriced who-cares-about-quality work they live with every day.
Yes, the mountain Olympic villages for athletes not only have the cozy look of chalets but also have been finished on time. Their lights twinkle cheerfully as darkness falls. But Gornaya Karusel, a resort meant to attract post-Olympic tourists and set off the rebirth of Sochi, reflects the taste of people who operate at high government levels and manage to build fortunes that would take hundreds of years to accumulate on their government salaries. A web of personal and business interests ties many of them to the Olympics.
Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader who also investigates corruption, calculates that the ski-jump complex and mountain hotels at Gornaya Karusel cost $2.4 billion. He says most of it was built by Magomed Bilalov, and the ski jump itself was built on land owned by Bilalov’s brother, Akhmed, who was vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee.
Akhmed Bilalov, who had been a member of parliament with close ties to the Kremlin, was fired a year ago because the ski jump was way behind schedule and costing far more than expected. The original $40 million estimate had swelled to $267 million. Putin publicly accused him of being too greedy, suggesting the overrun was tied to corruption. Both Bilalovs fled the country.
Navalny has also documented the hugely expensive country homes owned by government officials, posting photos on his blog. Many of the houses share the architectural sensibilities of some of the construction in Gornaya Karusel, the heavy stone-clad lower floors proclaiming the insignificance of those outside the walls.
Similar grandeur, this Italianate style, can be observed in a palace on Sochi’s Black Sea coast that was reportedly built for Putin. His spokesman has denied it.
Much of Gornaya Karusel’s style suggests power rather than comfort. The Gorki 960 spa, with its broad, shallow Classical porch and four columns, has a cold Soviet House of Culture look to it. Skiers coming off the slopes won’t find softly glowing cafes where they can sip on mulled wine. It’s elegant hotel lobbies or nothing.
Still, there are glorious mountains and chance encounters with the real Russia. One evening this week, a traveler lining up for the cable-car trip back down to the valley found the cars dark and unmoving.
“They cut off the electricity,” a guard said. “It could be off for five minutes.”
The would-be passenger regarded the line of decidedly cold people. “How long has it been five minutes?” she asked.
“Oh,” he replied, “about 15 minutes.”
Will Englund contributed to this report.