Sotchi 2014 : who's taking advantage of the Olympic Games?

Simon Henry, translated by Julie Richard
27 Août 2013

The Olympic Games will take place in Russia from the 7th to the 23rd of February 2014. The International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s choice made waves. The cost of the whole organization should reach a historical record. The other side of the coin which discredits these Olympic Games is the damaging of the environment and the suspicions about corruption.

© Kevin Pedraja
© Kevin Pedraja
Sotchi is a city of 400,000 inhabitants, bathed on one side by the Black Sea, and on the other side, is overhung by the Caucasians snowy peaks. This seaside resort, one of Vladimir Putin's favorite vacation spot, was better known for its spa houses than for its skiing areas. But surprisingly, on 7th July 2007 in Guatemala City, Sotchi was chosen as the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, piping at the post the South Korean city Pyeongchang and the Austrian city Salzbourg. Russia will therefore be hosting the next winter Olympic Games for the first time, 34 years after the summer games in Moscow, which were at that time boycotted by a part of the Western world.

A controversial handing out

Even though the Cold War is over, choosing Sotchi did make waves. After Beijing in 2008, the International Olympic Committee is once again distinguishing a country which isn't known to respect democracy and Human rights. People didn't take long to react. "If it's about political influence and big money, then Salzbourg didn't have a chance", immediately said Alfred Gusenbauer, the Austrian Prime Minister at that time. Poor loser or exchange of good practices? The final decision was taken with the relative majority (51 votes against 47). The members who voted took into account the report of the evaluation committee, the technical aspects of the application and other factors he/she has tried to take into account as great games for athletes, superb competition venues, the Olympic Village, defends the IOC. According to Slate, two months before the nomination of Sotchi, Vladimir Putin could have gone to Guatemala City personally to meet the IOC members. "A head of state can perfectly support his candidacy" the IOC answers. According to the same source, the second biggest bank of the country, VTB, would have concluded almost simultaneously a partnership with the AAIF, the International Association of Athletics Federation. This is enough to rise up serious questions.  

The most expensive winter Olympic Games in History

Sotchi's application was not the most obvious one. Unlike its competitors, the city owned very little equipment. To be up to the event, Vladimir Putin promised to inject 12 billion Euros investment. This amount therefore defeats Vancouver (1.44 billion Euros) and Turin (3.6 billion Euros) in the Top most expensive Winter Olympics. This is the price to pay in order to make quasi nonexistent infrastructures come out from the ground. In short, an oceanfront Olympic park, 25km away from the city center, for ice sports and ceremonies, and sites in mountains for snow disciplines. Nevertheless, the constructions inherent to this type of event, especially in transportation, remain essential. Otherwise the party would simply be wasted. A 48km motorway section connecting to Adler, on the coast, to Krasnaya Polyana where the ski resorts are, was built, as well as a multistation serving rail, sea and road networks. Dmitri Tchemychenko, president of the Sotchi 2014 organization committee, describes it as "the biggest construction site in the world". Yet, we should not delude ourselves. These new constructions are part of a well-thought strategy as the government is already thinking about the after-Sotchi. The main goal is to benefit from the economic impacts, and therefore transform this seaside resort, put down for its VIP customer base, into a hotspot for international tourism. Hence, it is important to leave a lucrative legacy to the city and the country beyond the 16 days of competition, to the detriment of the environment.

Risk of obsolescence of the infrastructures

According to Greenpeace, some 1,500 families got expelled from their housing to give way to the Olympics constructions. Some of them were forced to do so, without any compensation. On its website, the local association Northern Caucasus Environment Watch compiles all amendments and legislative violations. For instance, the law about protected areas was changed in 2006 in order to make mass sports activities possible in national parks. In 2009, it became the same with the Forest Code which authorizes the felling of rare species of trees and bushes. Especially as more and more doubts remain regarding the viability of the infrastructures. “The meaning of any urban planning project lies in the improvement, when all is said and done, of the city-dwellers’ life. When I look at Sotchi, I can’t tell if people’s life will be better here or not”, declares Eleonora Chevtchenko, assistant director of the Scientific Institute of Theory of Architecture and Urbanism, to the Courrier de Russie. The benefits expected could therefore have a limited lifespan. But the juice is worth the squeeze. 

Suspicions of bribery

As every self-respecting construction site, the work has been delayed. “We are working closely with the organization committee and we are using the experience gained from the previous winter Olympic Games to be sure that everything is ready on time”, tempers the IOC. However, the organization cost was revised upwards. It is now estimated at 36 billion dollars (including 24 billion public funds), that is to say three times more than initially planned. Akhmed Bilalov, former vice-president of the Russian Olympic Committee, bore the consequences. He was dismissed on the 7th February 2013. “Congratulation, you’re doing a great job!” ironically said Vladimir Putin to Akhmed Bilalov. Now these series of delays fuel bribery suspicions. A report from the Court of the Russian Auditors dated of 6 March 2013, quoted by the press agency Ria Novosoti, accuses “Olympstroi” of “having created conditions of an unjustified cost inflation”. Two months later, the conclusions of an investigation led by Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Russian opposition, is again adding more fuel to the flames. According to Le Monde, these conclusions state that more than 23 billion were embezzled. It would be an insidiously manipulated scam serving the purposes of several people gravitating around Vladimir Putin. “The Olympic Games are a personal project for Putin, and it is obvious that those who stole this money are those who are close to the same Putin”, he rises up.

Geopolitical stakes

Vladimir Putin made this sport event his national pride. Beyond its idyllic surroundings, Sotchi isn’t an insignificant choice. The city is located near the Georgian border that is to say a major strategic place. Since he came back to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has never concealed his ambition which is to recover the former prestige of the Soviet Union. Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have expressed their wishes to become NATO members and on a longer term, European Union members. But these upcoming Olympics on the Russian land, a real economic boost, set up a new deal. In 2008, the Georgian athletes’ entry to the Olympics in Sotchi was jeopardized. This boycott was aiming at protesting against Moscow’s independence acknowledgement of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions (Russia had invaded Georgia in 2008). Since then, the new Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanichvili is leading the country. Being in favor of the improvement of the relationship with Russia, he put an end to the suspense on 2nd May this year. “I congratulate you: Georgian athletes will participate in the winter Olympics Games (in 2014 in Sotchi, Russia) and this is for the benefit of the Georgian sport”, he said to Russian newspaper Kavkazski Ouel, dedicated to Northern Caucasus. It seems that Vladimir Putin is in the process of making his initial outlay profitable. On all fronts.