Russia may come in from the cold

The Baltimore Sun

SOCHI, Russia -- The two-lane road from the old Soviet-style airport to the center of town has become an avenue of billboards showing men, women and children on skis and snowboards, riding chairlifts and chasing hockey pucks.

On their faces is the promise of what might come to be in this city in southern Russia, and something Russians have historically had little experience with: hope.

Dubbed the "Russian Riviera" - which, granted, is a bit of an embellishment - Sochi has palm trees and parasailing and a shoreline stretching dozens of miles along the temperate Black Sea coast. But the city is on the cusp of more, and of giving the nation the right to indulge in another emotion it has never quite mastered: excitement.

In three weeks, on July 4, the International Olympic Committee will vote to award the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi or one of its competitors, Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Russia can hardly stand the suspense.

"I don't want to even think about disappointment, because we've already gained a lot by the bid," said Yefim Bitenev, director of operations in the Sochi office, where posterboard maps of the planned Olympic facilities are so ubiquitous that they are found even in the bathroom. "We're taking part in the bid only to win."

Winning the 2014 Games - especially after Moscow failed to make the candidate city short list for the Summer Games in 2012 - is not officially one of Russia's grandiose-sounding "National Projects," which include health care and housing. But it might as well be.

The bid's most prominent spokesman is the nation's president, Vladimir V. Putin, who owns a country house in Sochi and uses the nearby Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in the Caucasus Mountains as his winter playground. And the federal government has approved an $11.7 billion plan to develop the Sochi region as a year-round vacation destination. That means new roads, a light-rail line, more hotels, sports venues and other infrastructure, including new power plants that residents hope will eliminate the blackouts that are a fact of life here.

"We are not spending this money on militarization, on guns, but for something which will improve our world," Putin said on a visit to Sochi during the International Olympic Committee evaluation commission's four-day site inspection in February. "This will be the legacy of Sochi."

Russia has thrown itself into Sochi's promotion with the gusto of the superpower it again aspires to be. There are commercials for the bid - "Gateway to the Future" - on CNN International. As soon as one of the best-known ski resort executives in the United States, Roger McCarthy of Vail Resorts, was wooed away to one of the Russian projects, the bid committee sent word to the IOC boasting of their catch.

Tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who grew up in Sochi, has been enlisted as a kind of bid ambassador. Before being defeated in the semifinals at the French Open - hopefully not an omen - she offered that she was trying to win "not just for myself, but to help boost the profile of the Winter Olympic bid in Sochi."

At last week's economic forum in St. Petersburg, which drew about 9,000 people from 65 countries, Putin and the crowd were treated to an ice skating show featuring Russian gold medalist Yevgeny Plushenko in honor of Russia's candidacy. Everyone donned 3-D glasses for a virtual tour of the 11 planned sports venues, which included a hair-raising hurtle down the bobsled run and ski jump, and a peek at the Olympic Park stadium, whose design is inspired by a Faberge egg.

Russia's Olympic bid comes at a time when the nation is as aware of - and as sensitive to - its global standing as it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. And, as such, the attendant publicity surrounding it has resulted in an incongruous display of Russia's might - and its insecurities.

Sochi Time, a newspaper devoted entirely to bid coverage that was launched here in April by the Olympic Committee, pointed out that last year's Winter Games in Turin, Italy, which it said earned $375 million, were "much more modest" than what Russia has proposed. Then it launched into an ode on the grander meaning of the Games.

"To invite the Olympics to your country means to say to the whole world: everything is alright here. We're not waging a war on anyone, we're not threatening anyone, we're not imposing our political will on anyone," the paper said. "The Olympics is important for Russia from the point of view of the status of the country in the international arena (we are not worse than others - we are on equal terms) and its prestige."

Russia - a vast expanse of a country where cold and snow are the defining characteristics much of the year - has never been host to the Winter Games, though its athletes, the organizing committee notes at every turn, have won more winter gold medals than any other nation.

To stage the Games in Sochi, Russia would have to build almost everything but the mountain - in less than seven years - something the IOC has noted as a potential stumbling block to an otherwise strong, if somewhat improbable, bid.

Russia's Olympic Committee suggests, to the contrary, that that very fact is a plus: All the facilities will be new and tailor-made. The head of Russia's Olympic Committee, Dmitri Chernyshenko, an advertising executive and avid skier, has called Sochi a "blank canvas" on which Russia can create a "masterpiece." To show off the resort under construction by the state-run natural gas monopoly Gazprom during the IOC's visit, Putin himself donned a bright red parka, buckled on his skis and whooshed down the mountain - twice.

Much of the development of Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana will take place regardless of whether Russia wins the bid (though if it doesn't, the city is widely expected to try for the Games again). There is a gleaming, glassy new terminal at the airport in nearby Adler, scheduled to open next year - infinitely more modern than the existing one, which still sports the Soviet Union's initials on the sign out front.

And the mountain - which has a single and excruciatingly slow chairlift requiring skiers to get off and back on three times to reach the 7,500-foot peak - is a veritable construction site. No fewer than three new ski areas are in the works: Hundreds of shiny gondolas sit at the base, waiting to be installed on lifts still being installed. Semitrailers haul in snow groomers flown in from abroad. Helicopters whose blades create echoes in the mountain valleys carry concrete and other supplies overhead.

While the state-run news media have generally fawned over Russia's bid, not all the publicity elsewhere has been good. Environmentalists from Greenpeace filed suit last year to halt construction of some planned facilities, including the bobsled run, which they said was being built within a federally protected area. Last week, the Supreme Court rejected the group's appeal.

Less than a month before the IOC visit, the Krasnaya Polyana resort was shut down after inspectors said they found safety violations. The Alpika-Servis company, which operates it, alleged that the inspection was linked to an attempt by the state to seize control of the resort.

Everyone with anything to do with the Olympic bid in Russia knows exactly how many days are left before the IOC's vote in Guatemala City. It's a number they know instinctively.

"There's no time," said Bitenev, "to count."

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