The lead up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi provided writers and editors with ample firepower for stories. Before we go any further, here are a few fun facts. The bill for the two-week event has ballooned to $51 billion, the most expensive ever; the average temperature in subtropical Sochi for February is 34.7 degrees Fahrenheit—on par with Kentucky’s average the same month; Russia spent $8.7 billion on a road to connect sites—three times what NASA spent on a new generation of Mars Rovers; Putin chose a Unesco World Heritage site for his newest dacha to conduct “meteorological research”; a blue psychedelic frog with no hands named Zoich became the unofficial mascot; the government has banned rallies and protests in lieu of an unpopular anti-gay law. As it turns out, Russia is as loaded with corrupt officials, conflict, and environmental disregard as it is vodka.
The infrastructure for the Sochi Games was built from scratch on two locations—Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains for skiing and downhill events, and the coastal town of Adler for skating competitions. The need for a decade worth of new projects was a gift for sleazy bureaucrats.
Brett Forrest writes in Vanity Fair UK that Putin and a small inner circle reaped the economic rewards from the vast construction ventures. The president’s close friends and colleagues were awarded lucrative contracts for power plants and structures, and state-owned contractors inflated building costs to cover kickbacks. Akhmed Bilalov, a Russian Olympic Committee member, oversaw the construction of the ski jump site that went over budget by $220 million. Putin jokingly applauded the miscalculation in front of cameras before he relieved Bilalov of his duties. Bilalov fled the country and survived a bout of mercury poisoning before he settled in London.
But according to Joshua Yaffa in Bloomberg Businessweek, the underhanded business that built Sochi is rampant across Russia. Yaffa met with a former Russian businessman named Valery Morozov. Morozov owned a construction firm but became weary when Kremlin officials insisted kickbacks in bags of cash. Morozov and the police created a sting operation to bring down a crooked high-profile official. The sting was busted, and the case stalled before it was eventually dropped. Morozov was granted asylum in London.
Sochi itself didn’t pop up from the earth like a ski resort. Newsweek’s Anna Nemstova and National Geographic’s Brett Forrest detail the area’s long and complicated history, from the 19th century genocide of the indigenous Circassian people to a war with Georgia in 2008.
Tension continues to this day. The surrounding areas of the Caucasus Mountians including Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya remain hotbeds for Islamic insurgents. Abkhazia, a small independent country that seceded from Georgia, got the cold shoulder from Russia after explosives linked to a terrorist group were found within the country’s borders. As a result, Abkhazians are not allowed to participate as an independent country, travel freely through Europe, cross the border to watch the Games, or get work on construction sites in Sochi.
In addition to lawless officials and volatile international relations, Sochi’s terrain has hindered plans, too. Unstable geology caused multiple site locations to shift; thick groves of trees blocked 5,750 vertical feet of ski slopes; and 28 million cubic feet of natural and artificial snow needed to be stored under reflective blankets. As a result of the environment’s “stubbornness,” developers beat the natural world into submission. Outside correspondent McKenzie Funk visited members of the Russian Geographical Society to assess the damage. The verdict: a bird preserve has vanished, up to 30,000 tons of debris ended up in an illegal landfill, and dump trucks caused landslides that shifted foundations of houses.
And then there are the athletes, who, like Sochi’s metamorphosis, rely on state-of-the-art technology to prepare for competition.
U.S. skier Ted Ligety told Popular Science he opened his own company to perfect the design of his goggles and helmets, and he tested 70 pairs of skis to find the perfect pair. According to Popular Mechanics, Team USA’s bobsled got a German makeover to speed up their medal conquest. BMW re-engineered the sled with a carbon fiber shell to disperse weight for a smoother and quicker ride. For snowboarder Amy Purdy, technology is the difference maker. Purdy explained to Glamour how she fought her way back after a life threatening illness to become the only double amputee athlete to compete at the Olympic level. For races where a tenth of a second can separate a world record holder from a has-been, cutting edge equipment is as essential to athletes as technique and drive.
The opening ceremony takes place on Friday, February 7th in the newly built Fisht Stadium. The roughly $500 million structure is scheduled for only two events, the opening and closing ceremonies. Then it takes a four-year hiatus before the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
To read all the articles mentioned, and more, click the images below from Zinio’s Winter Olympic Collection.
Popular Mechanics, February 2014
Bloomberg Businessweek, Jan. 6 – 12, 2014
Vanity Fair UK, February 2014
Redbook, February 2014
Reader’s Digest, February 2014
Popular Science, February 2014
Newsweek, Jan. 31, 2014
Glamour, February 2014
ESPN The Magazine, Feb. 3, 2014
The Nation, Feb. 10, 2014
The Economist, Feb. 1, 2014
Transworld Snowboarding, February 2014
Outside, December 2013
Newsweek, Jan. 10, 2014
National Geographic Interactive, January 2014