For Faded Russian Resort, A Truly Olympic Task

Residents tend crops on future site of Olympic ice arenas in Sochi, a city of 400,000 on the Black Sea. The original price tag for preparations was $13 billion, but that has now doubled.
Residents tend crops on future site of Olympic ice arenas in Sochi, a city of 400,000 on the Black Sea. The original price tag for preparations was $13 billion, but that has now doubled. (By Sergey Ponomarev -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 24, 2008

SOCHI, Russia -- Vladimir Putin's field of dreams is a drained marsh with a solitary cow, some rows of potato stalks and a small cemetery that dates to 1911. On this unlikely piece of turf, reached by a narrow road that skirts the Black Sea, Russia is planning to build an Olympic park to stage the 2014 Winter Games.

It is an enormous and fabulously expensive undertaking that will require nothing less than the total transformation of this faded resort, a onetime favorite of the Communist elite.

Sochi and the Caucasus Mountains above it boast impressive scenery and great snow but as yet no world-class sports facilities. The city also lacks just about every other kind of facility that will be needed to host the many tens of thousands of people who will come for the Games -- an adequate transportation system, ample electricity and telecommunications, hotels, even a functional sewage system.

"It's probably the most challenging Olympics ever, as far as what has to be built to deliver these Olympic Games," said Jean-Claude Killy, the former French champion skier, who last month headed up a coordination committee of the International Olympic Committee that visited Sochi. "We have a lot of work to do together."

In vying for the Games last year, Sochi went up against Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, both of which could have prepared for 2014 with a lot less work. Putin, then Russia's president, flew to the IOC selection meeting in Guatemala and personally lobbied for Sochi. Its final 51 to 47 victory over Pyeongchang was attributed largely to Putin's intervention and the Russian government's pledge of big-scale financing.

Early estimates put the cost at $13 billion, more than double the preparation costs of the three previous Winter Games combined. Plans called for the Russian government to provide $8 billion, with the rest coming from private sources such as Kremlin-friendly tycoons and the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. But already the price tag is rising. "The figures that were stated earlier have doubled," Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Russian Audit Chamber, a federal watchdog organization, told a parliamentary committee last month.

Arguments over the true expense may have cost one prominent official his job, analysts in Moscow say. Semyon Vainshtok, head of Olimpstroi, the state corporation overseeing the construction, abruptly resigned last month. He said his work was done, but just weeks before quitting he had warned parliament that the government's costs could triple.

State experts, he said, had confirmed none of the original estimates. He said that transportation upgrades alone could cost $13.5 billion and that an additional $3.5 billion needed to acquire land "was not even taken into account."

Costs are rising particularly fast for the network of roads and rail that will link the city with the mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana, located 27 miles away across rough, rising terrain. Further complicating the plans are environmentalists and homeowners who are threatening legal action to block various construction projects.

But the organizers are undaunted and insist they are on schedule. "We didn't promise anyone that with a click of the fingers we will open all the stadiums and solve all problems," said Efim Bitenev, deputy director of the representative office of the organizing committee.

Olimpstroi didn't respond to e-mailed questions regarding the project. But Aleksei Malkov, a local official, said Sochi has a trump card: "We have the guarantee of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin that we will succeed."

The Games will be held in two locations. In Sochi, authorities plan to build a 480-acre Olympic park that will include a village to house the athletes and six stadiums for indoor events and the opening and closing ceremonies. (The cemetery in the middle of the planned park will be fenced in.) In the mountains, another Olympic village is planned as well as facilities for skiing, bobsled and other events.

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