We are in the final stages of the most controversial, and therefore highly anticipated, Winter Olympic Games in recent memory. In measurement of sheer spectacle, Sochi has consistently delivered over the course of the two weeks. Spellbinding moments of triumph and sportsmanship contrast sharply against stories of excess and corruption, and the whole time we have remained captivated.
In the lead-up to the Games, Western media did not go easy on Russia. Nor should it have. From two-toileted bathroom stalls and tales of hasty plans for euthanasia to deal with Sochi’s sizable population of stray dogs, critics looking to prove that Sochi was a bloated mess of an affair had plenty of evidence from which to choose.
The aftermath will provide plenty of fodder and fallout once the Games have ended as well. Rumor has it a number of lawsuits detailing the corruption will come to light once the Games have ended. Russia’s state-run Olympic construction authority, Olympstroy, which is in charge of disbursing the funds from Russia’s coffers to private contractors for projects in preparation for the Games, has had a revolving door of four directors over the course of six years. Each one has left under allegations of abuse of power or embezzling funds.
None of these criticisms are valid to the host country, however, which is achieving its objective in staging the Olympics; Russia undertook a $51 billion project to showcase its might under Vladimir Putin. The Games have served as a coming-out party for the post-Soviet nation, which has been looking for a worldwide audience before which to flex its muscles. For the money, Russia built itself the perfect stage for its show.
From the athletes and dignitaries in attendance to us, the viewers watching the Olympics from the comfort of our homes, Putin’s Russia has remained at the center of our attention. Never once have we forgotten our illustrious hosts, and the spotlight shows no signs of wavering as the Games wind down.
For its part, hosting the Games has been a tremendous undertaking for Russia and has been a tremendous burden to country’s taxpayers who are footing the bill for the majority of the expenses. Much has been said about Sochi being the costliest Winter Olympics on record. At an estimated $51 billion, Sochi is more expensive than all previous Winter Olympics combined.
Unfairly, comparisons have been made between Sochi and Vancouver, who preceded Russia, hosting the Games in 2010. Canada’s cost was a miserly $7 billion by contrast, but neither Canada nor most other host nations have set out with a plan as ambitious as what Russia hoped to achieve in Sochi.
For one thing, host cities like Vancouver have long been destinations for outdoor sports and winter activities. World-class venues and infrastructure already existed in many of these host sites. By contrast, the entire region around Sochi had to be retrofitted to accommodate Olympic-size crowds and activities. The scope of the project in Sochi was massive. Facilities fit for the Olympics had to be created for the sleepy sub-tropical resort town located on the Black Sea.
Make no mistake, Putin had high expectations for the Games, and few heads of state in the history of host nations had so active a role in prepping the location of their Olympics. As a feat of his country’s engineering prowess, Putin has consistently pointed to the construction of the road between Adler, where the ice skating events are taking place, and the skiing events in Krasnaya Polyana. The project was a multibillion dollar undertaking. A mere 30 miles separates the two towns. Yet to connect them a stretch of road consisting of 45 bridges and 12 tunnels had to be constructed. With an original price tag of $2.85 billion, the project quickly ballooned to more than $9.5 billion, making it the single largest construction contract in Russian history.
Totaling almost four times its projected cost and displacing residents whose homes happened to be in the way of the path of construction, the road stands as an example of what detractors say is also most flawed about the way Russia has prepped for the Olympics, highlighting examples of gross mismanagement of funds and human rights violations committed.
While showcasing its capabilities to the West has been important, proving its self-sufficiency has been paramount to Russia’s ego, lest any acceptance of outside help be interpreted as a form of weakness. Earlier this winter, NATO offered to help with security around the Games. Russian officials formally rebuffed their offer and instead hired a small army of 70,000 personnel to guard Sochi.
That go-at-it-alone attitude has contributed to icy relations between the host country and attendee nations. As criticism has mounted about the shortcomings of Sochi, Russia’s press and its people have grown increasingly flippant and standoffish toward their detractors.
In their view, the country banded together to pull off what has arguably been one of the most formidable Olympic projects in history, and it did it on its own, the Russian way, which can be argued is a mixture of doing things the right way and the wrong way.
Like the plot to a Tolstoy novel, the actions of all parties involved surrounding these Games are perfectly flawed, and therefore perfectly Russian.
As an unwitting bystander, you have been pulled into the orbit of Putin’s Games, and you have a decision to make: you are welcome to stay and enjoy stories of 60-degree weather and unfinished hotel rooms in Sochi, or you can purposefully stay away from it all in a huff.
Either way, please know your opinion does not matter very much to Mother Russia, and it will matter even less in the long run.