Why Sochi is, ironically, the perfect place for the winter Olympics

It is, ironically, the perfect venue for an event riddled with corruption

SOCHI, a subtropical resort on the Black Sea coast, seems an odd place … to stage the winter Olympics. It is the warmest place in Russia, where people go to escape winter. The weather forecast for the coast where the opening ceremony will be held on February 7th is 10-12°C (50-54°F). The competitions which require snow will be held in the mountains above Sochi, where the day temperature is just above freezing. Fearing a lack of snow, Russia stored last year’s (though recent snowfalls made this insurance measure superfluous). Sochi is also on the edge of a war zone in the North Caucasus. Counter-terrorist operations are being carried out less than 200 miles away. Why did the Russians make such a curious choice?

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Russian officials point out that Sochi is not the first subtropical location for the winter Olympics. Nagano in Japan, which also has a subtropical climate, hosted the games in 1998. And as for the threat of a terrorist attack, nowhere is safe these days: security measures for the London Olympics were just as stringent. That is all true. Sochi was chosen mainly because it is a favourite playground of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. He spends much time at his Sochi residence and intends the games to be seen as proof of his mastery over nature and a symbol of his international legitimacy. Yet the choice is, ironically, entirely apt in one respect. Since Soviet times Sochi has had a reputation as a brash and seedy resort, a hotspot for holiday sex and a place where black-marketers and underground entrepreneurs from across the Soviet Union spent their not-always-honestly-earned roubles. «If I knew a card trick, I’d live in Sochi,» runs an old saying. This makes it arguably the perfect place to hold the Olympics, which have become a model of Russia’s crony capitalism and a world championship of corruption. Those who won the construction contracts certainly know a trick or two.

Sochi has already set the record for the most expensive games in history. At an estimated cost of $51 billion it is five times as expensive as the winter Olympics in Nagano, the preparation for which involved the construction of arenas, roads and a bullet-train line from Tokyo. The main reason for such astronomical cost is graft. That, at least, is what nearly 50% of Russians believe, according to opinion polls. Only 15% buy the arguments made by officials that it was the complexity of the project that increased the cost. Corruption comes in different forms: overstating costs, giving contracts to friends and relatives (some of whom have no qualifications) and reworking the same construction site several times over to justify charging more. Most of the money came directly from the state or via state banks. Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and opposition politician, says the cost over-run is 150-250%. He has published lists of the main winners of the Olympic projects. The fact that some of the hotels still have not been finished makes the level of spending all the more extraordinary.


As for the rest of the Russian population …

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