ADLER, Russia — Greater Sochi looks strikingly pretty these days. Far from one of those post-Olympic ghost towns often seen in melancholy photos, it looks like the 2014 Winter Olympics might have stuck a key in some sort of ignition and revved up the place. There’s snow on the mountains but bustle along the boardwalk by the Black Sea, and only part of the credit goes to the World Cup. Could this be the same place?
It’s all shops by the hundreds; cafes by the tens; beach umbrellas by seemingly the tens of thousands; jugglers and singers and artists; those little fish therapy places where people stick their feet into fish tanks. You can pay to pose with peacocks or monkeys, or ride a mule brought around by a young man who said he doesn’t speak English but clearly takes nice care of the mule. “Despacito” echoes up and down the beach.
It’s all alive with activity, even more than during an Olympics. And the vast majority of the people enjoying the 85-degree weather Thursday were Russian, even though Spain will play Portugal here Friday night in a doozy of a first-weekend match at Fisht Stadium — which some of us last saw filled with ballerinas, giant mascots and murals of deceased Russian authors in the Winter Olympic Closing Ceremonies.
What makes this something else is that, to foreign visitors, those particular Olympics became known for a certain lack of zeal. It looks like Sochi’s neighbor Adler, which harbored the seaside Olympic hub, might have been just getting going. The boxy housing complex where many of the visiting media members stayed, with those famous stories about lacking shower curtains and so on? That’s called a “hotel city” nowadays, and while it’s not exactly Times Square, it does have a slew of businesses such as Beauty Workshop Russian Stylist, which appears to do some mighty hair. It remains by the border with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the border fence sticking out into the sea as before.
“I think after the Olympic Games, Sochi became more popular because of sports,” said Igor Berezovscky, a 21-year-old tourist from Novosibirsk in Siberia. “People came here to go to the mountains, to go skiing. Before the Olympic Games, there are not so many sports centers here. People came here before the Olympic Games only to lie on their backs, only to have a rest, and after the Olympic Games, there’s so much more. After the Olympic Games, people who were interested in sports came here.”
One such young couple from Voronezh, a city of 1 million about 500 miles north, walked along the promenade Thursday with their 7-month-old son. They’re on their second visit to Sochi, lured by the soccer three years after being lured by the Formula One race that was first raced here in 2014. “We were here earlier, a couple of years ago,” said Konstantin Grobenhikov, the husband of the couple. “It was October, the middle of October. It’s a brilliant part of Russia, the big country.”
Muliakov Chernov, an artist who went to school to study oil and gas but has turned out to be quite a sketcher of soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, movie stars such as Angelina Jolie and people coming down the way, said, “Before the Olympics, it was so-so, and now more like Europe, it has become.” He has noticed one of the unmistakable byproducts of the popularity: “Every year it becomes harder and harder for Russians,” he said through his phone translator, “because the prices keep going up.”
A Sochi-based stadium security guard said that sometimes, the changes in the city astonish her.
One edge of the beach feels noiseless: the Olympic area with its circle of six buildings — the stadium and two hockey arenas, plus one that held figure skating, one that held speedskating and one that held curling. These still get used on occasion for sporting events, and one is now marked as a tennis academy. Anyone who was here in February 2014 might remember the hockey arena as the place Alex Ovechkin skated off somberly after Russia’s ouster by Finland in the quarterfinals.
The cauldron for the Olympic flame still stands tall amid the Olympic park, and over to one side is a “Wall of Champions,” with the names of the participating countries and medal winners on “rhombic sign plates,” as the display describes. The rhombic sign plates include 13 gold medals, 22 silver and 33 bronze from Russians (counting members of teams), an indication that the doping scandal that wound up rubbing out the name “Russia” from the most recent Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, might not register upon this wall. Around the park stand the empty grandstands ready for car racing, plus the fences with the familiar curled tops to protect spectators. A Russian hockey team plays in the hockey center, its ticket booths outside and quiet for summer.
What does ring familiar from 2014 is the Russian youth, back then so curious about the world and so keen to practice English. Those young remain, even if outnumbered by the still younger as the place teems with children ridding in strollers or upon scooters.
As a World Cup began up in Moscow, each Russian goal met with sounds of cheering cafes and viewing areas along the coastline of Greater Sochi. Most others seemed only cursorily interested in the football and more interested in vacation. By nightfall, they stopped and made a clot along the promenade to view a water show, for which speakers played the song that has become perhaps the greatest unifying force in the history of Earth.
That would be, of course, “Dancing Queen.”