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2014 Sochi Olympics: Adler, Lost In Its Olympic Self

Jonathan Arkin |
February 24, 2014 | 12:17 p.m. PST


The Sochi Olympic rings (Facebook/2014 Sochi Olympic Games)
The Sochi Olympic rings (Facebook/2014 Sochi Olympic Games)

Everything you’ve read about the 2014 Sochi games is true.

These XXII Winter Olympics went way over budget. The organizers had to import snow. There were hospitality malfunctions in the press hotels. English and other languages were not spoken by volunteers and staffers. Money that had been appropriated for civic development projects disappeared. Strange fences had been put up everywhere. Infrastructure in general was lacking. Adequate signage? Forget it. Judging controversies abound were pissing competitors off. Sochi is not a “smoke-free city.” Sochi is not Adler. And vice-versa.

These games have been set up for a massive fail, and the Russians – not the IOC – were clearly to blame. The diagnosis itself, though, is harder to assess and to deliver, partly because of the opaqueness of the host country itself.

My own experience in trying to get from New York to Moscow to Krasnodar airport to the Krasnodar train station to a town connecting to Sochi/Adler with limited Russian and a sketchy Visa card? – read the blog, laugh with me and at me. But there were things, Bob DeNiro, there were things…

To simply call Russian society dishonest is to blanket an entire people with a sad bigotry that has followed them for a century predating the Communists. Yet, since the time of the Cossacks, the leaders of this sprawling country have colluded with the people in impressive ways to defraud them of proper growth and parity with the rest of the world. The state-sponsored massacres of the 19th Century, the murderous excesses of Stalin, the costly occupations and the childishness of the Cold War? All of these – and other marks on the Russo-Soviet record – have only resulted in a semi-successful nuclear program, empty victories in the race to space, and a mediocre military-industrial complex with a spotty record of achievement and high levels of pollution.  Still, as Slavic history scholar Boris Wolfson is quick to point out, this is a country that didn’t emerge from the Middle Ages until the 18th Century. 

The violent ethnic/Jihadist conflict in the neighboring North Caucasus that has become part of the cautionary lexicon is very real and it is one that even the mighty Vladimir Putin cannot simply sweep away – much as was done with ‘undesirables’ in the quieter locales of Beijing and Vancouver and with the stray dogs of Athens (yes, Athens has them too). The Chechens, who also seek autonomy, are nearby and are always a threat to strike civilian targets. A former Soviet Socialist Republic away, the city of Kiev and the nation of Ukraine are experiencing a wrenching vote of no-confidence from its people that could easily spread across the fluid frontier.

So what exactly is this residue that keeps Russia from presenting a Winter Games that would truly take our breath away? Is it a city’s games – or a nation’s? Where is Adler?

Just six years ago, the 2008 Beijing Games were more of a cotillion for China as a whole – as roughly half the city was wiped away to make room for newer, brighter representations of an emerging People’s Republic – as opposed to the purity and civic centrality of Nagano, Calgary, Lillehammer, Grenoble and other cities nodding ever so slightly to their countries as a whole. With Sochi 2014, as much as the Russians want and need to make it “their” games, by choosing a bland Black Sea resort as a symbol, it is simply a Black Sea-and-Krasnaya Polyana games. Sochi itself has zero Olympic identity. The only signage related to the Games, besides a welcome banner with the Olympic rings nearby, is on the way out of town: “Olympic Vehicles Only.” That and the train station, which whisks spectators from residential Sochi nearly an hour down the coast, past three major towns.

MORE: #SochiProblems Not An Issue For Some Reporters

There was a reason that the term glasnost (“openness”) was so revolutionary in 1980s and 1990s Russia. The country, as normal as it appears today, is used to being an enigma. Former Communist and KGB operatives populate the highest and lowest offices of Russian urban and pastoral society. They’re not talking to you. Contracts for almost every improvement project are dogged by non-transparency, corruption and graft. Even visa restrictions on American visitors – put in place, ostensibly, to counter our own restrictive policies – make it a difficult place to visit casually. These games are an example of that policy. (Have you heard loud chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at any events? Unlikely. Creepy, but not surprising.) 

And that benchmark of a Winter Games host city’s charm – the filmic embrace of its visual and human beauty popularized by Charles Kuralt? While it is likely the great Kuralt would have found something to show us to make us smile, cigarette smoke included, it is almost a given that the Russians on camera would be as dour as the service professionals working his hotel lobby. 

But many recent Olympic games have been fodder for naysayers to deliver death watch predictions for the hapless cities. Some games have bankrupted their hosts. Many of the host cities have prospered despite the complications; some have not. Adler? Sochi? Harder to predict.

Atlanta, which snatched the Summer Games away from the centennial favorites Athens in 1996, was deemed more prepared than the historic hosts, who finally got their chance eight years later – still amid talk of incomplete stadiums and corruption. Beijing’s clean-up efforts to eliminate entire neighborhoods, even while their stadiums pushed completion deadlines, all raised international eyebrows. Those Atlanta, Athens and Beijing games ended up perfectly fine, even if we sometimes associate Atlanta with the tragedy at Centennial Park. Nagano ’98 and Vancouver ’10 were both plagued by a shortage of snow: meteorologically, Nagano recovered; Vancouver did not. Sydney seemed prepared enough in 2000; however, its stadiums began crumbling even during the games. The concern surrounding Salt Lake City’s games in 2002 was tied directly to the then-recent attacks of September 11, 2001; SLC’s now-familiar and highly effective security apparatus has since become the standard for all subsequent games. These cities all soldiered on.

It is clear that what befell Athens and Beijing in the aftermath of their Olympic games, however, can certainly happen here in Sochi-Adler. The gorgeous stadia that peppered the site of Athens’ former airport? Empty and abandoned, hidden behind overgrown weeds and fencing. That ‘Bird’s Nest’ and ‘Cube’ lining the Beijing Olympic Park? As empty as the new apartment buildings that replaced bustling, historic hutongs in the Chinese capital.

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. (Atos/Flicker)
Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. (Atos/Flicker)
Adler is a town whose time has yet to come. On the electric train that plies the route from the charming and popular resort town of Sochi – you saw right, those were palms lining the Torino-esque boulevards – and Adler to the south, there are puzzling fences partly obscuring palatial, empty structures that may be residences, churches or offices. Slum-like dwellings appear on the right side windows (seaside) as the Olympic Village comes into view. Propaganda-fed NBC commentators, somewhat sweetly and naively, sing of Russia’s “plans” to soon house a major league soccer franchise inside the spacious Bolshoi Dome, which hosted the Olympic hockey final. This stadium sits next to the spacious Fisht Olympic stadium, which sits next to the spacious indoor Shayba, Ice Cube and Iceberg arenas.

If very recent history is any indication, these stadiums will also sit idly by while Adler’s jobbing contractors argue over their kickbacks and timetable extensions. The area surrounding Olympic Park, which is essentially a hastily-constructed, reclaimed swamp, will inevitably begin to reclaim its natural identity – as a swamp. Adler’s plans to rival peerless Sochi, three-quarters of an hour to the north, will rest on the success of the hastily-built airport that serves both cities. The light rail, usually the jewel of Olympic host-city engineering, will remain – largely unused by all except for those visiting Sochi.

But amid all the head-shaking (“Nyeh. No English. No trains.”), price-gouging, township-evoking fencing, empty McMansions and strange appearances by the Vladi-mafioso and his entourage, the Sochi Games have been free of incident. 

The security apparatus, while manned by hordes of bored-looking, youngish soldiers with droopy eyes, has followed typical Olympic protocol and procedure. The checkpoints, while greater in number than in previous games, have been foolproof thus far. Putin’s gleaming new stadiums, large cathedrals to Olympian sport, are free of falling tiles and collapsing bleachers. In fact, they are stunning. The snow, as slushy and fake as it is, ruts just like any other white ski runs in the World Cup circuit. The athletes themselves have finally taken over and have delivered marquee moments for all – home fans and visitors alike.

And other shining points of light redeem the people themselves – who are easy to identify at first glance as anti-American, distrustful of foreigners and harmfully secretive. 

These are not the Brezhnevian days during which your tourist movements would be monitored by thinly-disguised KGB operatives and their local Bolshevik collaborators. Putin’s “Ring of Steel” is meant to keep trouble out; once you’re in, unless you find yourself in a backwater like Krasnodar or Tuapse, you are safe and valued. And humanity is only a furrowed eyebrow away. Sensing that a foreign journalist is in trouble with the Cyrillic alphabet, a husky businessman named Maxim offers unsolicited help in securing passage to Sochi from a remote, scary train station five hours away. A lanky, excitable young man who calls himself Sergey, sees our U.S. credentials at the Olympic Park promenade and plies us with eager questions about our perceptions of Sochi, his hometown. A uniformed policeman, wordlessly and with a wink, waves us past Olympian queues with a raise of his velvet rope. A smiling waiter’s eyes widen at a tourist’s selection of a traditional Russian dish over the more Westernized offerings on the menu. “Very Russian, the Veal Count Orloff. Thank you.” The Russian heart beats, and it is generous.

What to make of this country of contradictions? Will these games be judged, as they should be, by the performances of the athletes or by the performance of the hosts? Will we remember the names Lipnitskaya, Ligety and Bjorndaelen as disembodied medalists without a referent? Or will we conjure up stern, goose-stepping apparatchiks whenever Sochi 2014 is mentioned?

One thing we can all take away from Sochi is that Russia could successfully host the Olympics again, and that we might have missed out big time as a result of our 1980 boycott. We missed out on the very human element of undermanned businesses and language barriers. Unscrupulous taxi touts and inadequate accommodations for visitors. Hidden neighborhoods. Embarrassing shortages in signage and accessibility. And unsolicited shots of regional vodka, emotional flag-waving locals vastly outnumbering the visiting hordes, local heroes mingling with their adoring fans.

In other words – these are a very human games. Something we may have all needed. Especially the adolescent town known as Adler.

Follow Johnathan on Twitter here.



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