Lifestyle & Belief

6 things that might ruin the Sochi Olympics


Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova practices during a night training session for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at the extreme park in Rosa Khutor.


Mike Blake

It’s now just two weeks until the 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in Sochi, Russia, and the excitement is… um, where is the excitement again?

For months, the countdown has been marred by fears that gay visitors will be subjected to the same intimidation that gay Russians and their supporters say they face as a matter of course. Meanwhile Russian organizers have hit back at what they claim is a manufactured controversy that drags politics into what’s supposed to be just sports.

Unfortunately for the hosts, questionable attitudes to homosexuality aren’t the only bad news brewing ahead of the opening ceremony. Not to be a downer or anything, but here are six things that stand to make the Sochi Games an Olympics to remember, for all the wrong reasons.


1. Security scares

(Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)

If anyone with a cause and a complete disregard for human life wanted a high-profile target for a terrorist attack, they could hardly do better than the Olympic Games. Unhappily, there’s no shortage of people who fit that bill in Russia’s North Caucasus, just over the border from the region where you’ll find Sochi. Militant Islamists have already demonstrated their intent with two bombings in the city of Volgograd in late December. The same group that claimed responsibility for those attacks has threatened to strike during the Games, while police this week indicated that a woman they suspect of planning a suicide bombing has already made her way to Sochi.

Russian authorities are taking the threats seriously enough to launch one of the most extensive security operations ever seen at an Olympic Games. Some 40,000 security personnel have been deployed to guard Sochi, which will be turned into a virtual fortress for the duration of the Games.

“We will protect our air and sea space, as well as the mountain cluster,” President Vladimir Putin said in a recent interview. “I hope things will be organized in such a way that they do not catch the eye and will not, so to say, depress the participants in the Olympic Games.” Which points to another problem: even if the safety fears prove unfounded, the threat alone means the Sochi Games will surely be very far from chilled out.


2. Unruly snow

(Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

If terrorists don’t strike the weather still could. Ever since last February, when test runs of several events had to be cancelled due to an unseasonably warm winter, Russian organizers have been fretting that there might not be enough snow. (You know Sochi is best known as a beach resort, right?)

So serious were the concerns that officials gave orders to stockpile some 450,000 cubic meters of the white stuff, at a cost of millions of dollars, in order to be sure the slopes were sufficiently covered. As part of their “guaranteed snow program,” organizers even have a special snow gun to fire artificial flakes at any piste that looks a little bare.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Now forecasters have warned that the problem could be the reverse: there’s a danger of “snow cyclones” hitting during the competition, Russia’s state meteorological agency said in December, which could “really make life difficult for two or three days.”


3. Unfinished facilities

(Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)

Look, we’re not the only pessimists here. Even Russia’s government isn’t sure everything will be ready on time.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that everything will be ideal and smooth,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confessed at the end of last month. He was taking his cue from Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who commented upon visiting the venue a few days earlier that there were “issues over the tweaking of some technological decisions” and “questions to the builders about finishing a number of facilities.” And two weeks ago, Energy Minister Alexander Novak admitted that Sochi’s new power grid was still a work in progress, due to come online in late January at the earliest.

Let’s not forget that almost everything you’ll see of Sochi on TV — sporting venues, the Olympic village, roads, the airport, the railway, hotels and even the port — had to be built pretty much from scratch. (For a fascinating glimpse of the before and after, check out The Sochi Project, a photographic record of the six years of preparation that went into the 2014 Games.) Getting this far has taken a mammoth construction effort and the biggest budget of any Olympics to date. Which leads us on to… 


4. Missing millions

(Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Medvedev may argue that the controversy over LGBT rights is a foreign import, but Russians don’t need any cue from overseas to criticise the Kremlin. Activists have been particularly vocal about the cost of the Sochi Games — which is, frankly, huge.

The total spend is estimated at more than $50 billion, of which as much as $30 billion has been siphoned off by corrupt officials and government cronies, claim opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk. In a report detailing their allegations, they call the Games “a monstrous scam.” The storm of mockery that greeted a picture of twin toilets in one of the Olympic venues this week (quote one tweeter: “This is what $50bn gets you!”) indicates that many others suspect the same.

One member of the International Olympic Committee has warned that Sochi’s suspect price tag is not only bad for these Games, but other yet to come. Swiss IOC administrator Gian-Franco Kasper said earlier this month that Russia’s spending set “a bad example” for other countries that might hope to host the Winter Olympics, most of which could never afford such enormous outlay.


5. Sinking streets

(Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)

Less than a mile from the showpiece Olympic stadium, the houses of Sochi are sinking. Photos show hillside homes at crazy angles, the furniture propped up on boards to keep it level. The cause, according to environmental activists, is a pit in the nearby forest where constructors dumped the waste from the Olympic building sites, disrupting the flow of groundwater and causing drastic erosion.

Investigators have found evidence of other dodgy landfills, including one operated by Russia’s state-owned rail company that threatened to contaminate Sochi’s water supply. So much for the world’s first “Zero Waste” Olympics.

Experts have been warning since 2010 of the risks posed by such a vast construction project, especially in a region with a history of landslides. The new tunnels and roads cut into the mountains above Sochi are not just bad for the environment, consulting geologist Sergei Volkov told the Russian government back then, they could be potentially dangerous. (He subsequently fled to Ukraine in fear of being punished for speaking out, like several other activists have complain they have been since raising their concerns.) The environmental toll might not ruin the Sochi Olympics, but it might just have ruined Sochi.


6. Dour Russians

(backpackphotography/Flickr Commons)

We don’t want to cast any aspersions on the good people of Sochi. But Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti, warns us that the city “has little history of mass foreign tourism, meaning that it has never had much of an incentive to work on overcoming language and cultural barriers.”

Overseas visitors should therefore be prepared to encounter questionable English translations (one store selling baby supplies has renamed itself “Happy Poops,” RIA Novosti reports), some possibly unwelcome slaps on the back, and a less than helpful level of customer service.

The Olympics organizers are so concerned that their guests will find locals to be, well, everything everyone says Russians are that they’ve laid on special classes for Sochians in English speaking and general hospitality. Though with billions of public roubles spent, tons of waste dumped and their town a terrorist target, can anyone blame them if they’re sour?