As I discovered during a recent visit, the Games will actually be held 20 miles down the road in Adler, Russia’s answer to the Jersey shore’s Asbury Park, a down market resort complete with a cheesy amusement park, kitschy hotels and a narrow promenade running alongside a beach of black sand and gravel.
Adler is a dingy working class town bisected by an even dingier river, a stone’s throw from the border with the Republic of Georgia. It seems caught in a time warp, lost somewhere between the failed totalitarian state of old and the possibilities of the capitalistic new.
Either way, there wasn’t much happening in Adler until the Olympics came to town. Except nobody here looks particularly happy at the prospect of the world coming to Adler in February. Missing is that mojo I remember back in 1996, when we were giddy about hosting the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
I didn’t see much in the way of cheerleading, billboards, concerts, ribbon cuttings, or countdown T-shirt auctions touting the pageantry of the Olympic Games. The lack of enthusiasm suggests that, to saturnine locals, the Winter Olympics are just another circus coming through and somebody will have to sweep up the elephant mess when it leaves.
This got me to wondering how Sochi got the Games in the first place.
Besides Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only other people to see the area’s potential as the site for a spectacular winter sports competition were the voting members of the International Olympic Committee, who chose Sochi in 2007 over bids from Korea and Austria. Sochi, after all, has palm trees and a temperate climate not unlike Marietta’s. In 2007, there were no stadiums or athletic facilities there for an Olympic Games, summer or winter. There was just a small ski resort, an hour away in the majestic Caucasus Mountains, but that was it as far as snow and ice were concerned.
My untrained eye tells me these guys are way behind schedule even though they’ve had more than five years to prepare. The race is on to complete what Putin hopes will be a sparkling showcase of post-Soviet Russia and, probably more important, a glittering testament to his leadership.
My guide and translator, Misha, explained that Putin emerged as Russia’s leader out of the chaos following the collapse of Communism here two decades ago. The opportunistic former KGB officer elbowed the old guard aside and brought about order with an iron fist, one not always sheathed in a velvet glove. Today, nothing of any importance happens in Russia without Putin’s say-so.
That’s why failure is not an option for the Olympic organizing committee headquartered in Sochi. Gone are Stalin’s grim Siberian gulags, but if the deadline is missed or the Games fail to dazzle, committee honchos may find themselves tending the rides at the Adler amusement park this time next year.
Speaking of Adler, the town is enjoying full employment these days. In fact, I was told by an American ex-pat that labor is so scarce, 70,000 workers have come from central Asian republics like Kazakhstan to work 24/7 on the Olympic Park just outside town. The park, called the Coastal Cluster, is nearly four miles long and a mile wide, its western flank edging the Black Sea. There, five enormous stadiums are under construction along with a sponsors’ village.
A non-stop convoy of trucks packed with building materials streams into and out of the vast park construction site around the clock churning up noxious clouds of concrete dust while workers clad in soiled blue coveralls and hard hats trudge from their temporary dorm complexes to and from their work.
The scene is in stark contrast to the recently completed five-star splendor of the Radisson Blu hotel, which towers above the construction site and will be home to IOC royalty next February.
We took a ride up to Krasnaya Polyana, a little village near the Mountain Cluster where skiing, bob sled, luge and other sports requiring an incline will be competed.
We followed smoke-belching semis being passed on the narrow, twisting road by suicidal Russians and Armenians texting or on cell phones driving everything from decrepit Ladas to showroom-new Mercedes SUVs. Misha, at the wheel of his VW, managed to avoid what would have been three nasty collisions.
The transition is startling. In a dozen miles you leave the palm trees behind and climb into alpine forests where craggy snowcapped peaks tower over the rugged river valley. Misha told me there are only a few places on Earth where you can ski in the morning and sun bathe on the beach in the afternoon. I told him Los Angeles is another.
Along the way, we saw more construction, new hotels and a high-speed rail system to connect Sochi, Adler and Krasnaya Polyana. We passed a hotel complex nearing completion that paralleled the road for a half mile.
Having worked at previous Olympics, I wondered how the billionaire developers are going to fill the tens of thousands of rooms they’re building here once the Sochi Games are over, especially after Misha told me snow has been in short supply for years. Evidently Putin plans for the region to become a premier tourist and meeting destination, so the Georgia World Congress Authority is going to have some more competition.
With less than 300 days until Opening Ceremonies, it appears the charge to the finish line is going to be a nail biter. I had my doubts until I remembered Russians are nothing if not stubbornly determined. These are the same people, after all, who pushed Hitler back to Berlin and stopped Napoleon cold.
I suspect they’ll be tightening that last bolt just as the first athlete enters the Sochi Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014.
Kevin Foley is a public relations executive, author and writer who lives in Kennesaw.