BY ALEKSANDRA LIFSHITS
Like many other Russians, I have fond memories of Sochi as Russia’s prime summer destination. I learned to swim there, splashing around in the Black Sea while enjoying Sochi’s famous beaches, and I relished in the cool shadow of the palm trees during the warm summer months. I have spend many of my childhood summers in the city, which leads to the question that has been puzzling many: Why choose a summer destination for the Winter Olympics?
Under Stalin, Sochi became a popular resort city and still remains one today. Despite the region’s decline since the fall of the Soviet Union, the city continues to attract consistent crowds of summer vacationers. However, Sochi not only has the cold winter climates required, it also has the potential to truly benefit from the Olympics, possibly regaining its Stalin-era title as Russia’s prime tourist summer – and now winter – destination.
In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, the international community has been engulfed in excitement, but also concern about the games and the security measures implemented during the event. Yet, I am less concerned with the politics surrounding the Olympics and more concerned with the potential benefit the city of Sochi has to gain from hosting the event. Russia has reportedly spent a record $51 billion in preparation for the games. Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, points out that this number doesn’t only reflect the costs of building the Olympic village, but also those of an extensive “transformation of the whole region.”
When I last visited Sochi in 2007, there was definitely great need for a change. I distinctly remember making my way up to the top of the mountain in a chairlift, nervously clutching my seat for lack of a security bar. The entire city seemed to be stuck in the past with much of the infrastructure in ruins. However, my Russian family and friends, who are currently at the Olympics, are struck by the astonishing transformation and growth the city has gone through. Almost every venue, from ice-skating rinks to bobsled runs, has been erected from scratch. A new international airport, 45 km of highway and 48 km of railroads have been built, and even the electrical power system has been upgraded. Yet, I wonder, of what use will all these venues be to Sochi after the Olympics.
The past host cities have had very different fates. Vancouver turned its Olympic Village into a residential neighborhood called Southeast False Creek. Moscow utilizes its Olympic venues – where I often went to play tennis – for sport teams and public recreation. Yet, not every Olympic village has such a happy fate. The Prime Minister of Greece, Konstantinos Georgakopoulos, describes a more tragic reality, where shopping centers, banks and post offices “were expected, yet never created” in the Athenian Olympic venues.
What differentiates Sochi from the past host cities is its size. It is significantly smaller than the other recent Olympic venues. It has a population of around 300,000, just half that of Vancouver. The Examiner estimates that “the expense for Russia to maintain the facility after the games is more than $2 billion US dollars per year.” Some post-Olympic ideas for the large indoor spaces are gallery exhibitions, concerts and shopping malls. What is clear is that many facilities will be used for training and future sports events, and part of the area will go to a sports camp. Already there have been plans of holding the World Champions for bobsledding in 2017 in Sochi and opening of a Formula One track this summer. However, with such a small permanent population it is difficult to imagine that these facilities will be consistently used.
To me it seems that Sochi’s venues will only be able to reach their full potential through future tourism. Surprisingly, Russia does not have many winter ski resorts, and many Russians travel to Europe to ski. Maybe because of the Olympics, Sochi will no longer have to freeze in the winter in anticipation of the summer vacationers. Maybe one year you too will choose to come to Sochi over Colorado or the Alps, though perhaps it is too ambitious to have such big hopes for such a little city.