Russia may come in from the cold

Nation ardently bids for first Winter Games

June 18, 2007|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun foreign reporter

SOCHI, Russia -- The two-lane road from the old Soviet-style airport to the center of town has become an avenue of billboards showing men, women and children on skis and snowboards, riding chairlifts and chasing hockey pucks.

On their faces is the promise of what might come to be in this city in southern Russia, and something Russians have historically had little experience with: hope.

Dubbed the "Russian Riviera" - which, granted, is a bit of an embellishment - Sochi has palm trees and parasailing and a shoreline stretching dozens of miles along the temperate Black Sea coast. But the city is on the cusp of more, and of giving the nation the right to indulge in another emotion it has never quite mastered: excitement.

In three weeks, on July 4, the International Olympic Committee will vote to award the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi or one of its competitors, Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Russia can hardly stand the suspense.

"I don't want to even think about disappointment, because we've already gained a lot by the bid," said Yefim Bitenev, director of operations in the Sochi office, where posterboard maps of the planned Olympic facilities are so ubiquitous that they are found even in the bathroom. "We're taking part in the bid only to win."

Winning the 2014 Games - especially after Moscow failed to make the candidate city short list for the Summer Games in 2012 - is not officially one of Russia's grandiose-sounding "National Projects," which include health care and housing. But it might as well be.

The bid's most prominent spokesman is the nation's president, Vladimir V. Putin, who owns a country house in Sochi and uses the nearby Krasnaya Polyana ski resort in the Caucasus Mountains as his winter playground. And the federal government has approved an $11.7 billion plan to develop the Sochi region as a year-round vacation destination. That means new roads, a light-rail line, more hotels, sports venues and other infrastructure, including new power plants that residents hope will eliminate the blackouts that are a fact of life here.

"We are not spending this money on militarization, on guns, but for something which will improve our world," Putin said on a visit to Sochi during the International Olympic Committee evaluation commission's four-day site inspection in February. "This will be the legacy of Sochi."

Russia has thrown itself into Sochi's promotion with the gusto of the superpower it again aspires to be. There are commercials for the bid - "Gateway to the Future" - on CNN International. As soon as one of the best-known ski resort executives in the United States, Roger McCarthy of Vail Resorts, was wooed away to one of the Russian projects, the bid committee sent word to the IOC boasting of their catch.

Tennis champion Maria Sharapova, who grew up in Sochi, has been enlisted as a kind of bid ambassador. Before being defeated in the semifinals at the French Open - hopefully not an omen - she offered that she was trying to win "not just for myself, but to help boost the profile of the Winter Olympic bid in Sochi."

At last week's economic forum in St. Petersburg, which drew about 9,000 people from 65 countries, Putin and the crowd were treated to an ice skating show featuring Russian gold medalist Yevgeny Plushenko in honor of Russia's candidacy. Everyone donned 3-D glasses for a virtual tour of the 11 planned sports venues, which included a hair-raising hurtle down the bobsled run and ski jump, and a peek at the Olympic Park stadium, whose design is inspired by a Faberge egg.

Russia's Olympic bid comes at a time when the nation is as aware of - and as sensitive to - its global standing as it has ever been in the post-Soviet era. And, as such, the attendant publicity surrounding it has resulted in an incongruous display of Russia's might - and its insecurities.

Sochi Time, a newspaper devoted entirely to bid coverage that was launched here in April by the Olympic Committee, pointed out that last year's Winter Games in Turin, Italy, which it said earned $375 million, were "much more modest" than what Russia has proposed. Then it launched into an ode on the grander meaning of the Games.

"To invite the Olympics to your country means to say to the whole world: everything is alright here. We're not waging a war on anyone, we're not threatening anyone, we're not imposing our political will on anyone," the paper said. "The Olympics is important for Russia from the point of view of the status of the country in the international arena (we are not worse than others - we are on equal terms) and its prestige."

Russia - a vast expanse of a country where cold and snow are the defining characteristics much of the year - has never been host to the Winter Games, though its athletes, the organizing committee notes at every turn, have won more winter gold medals than any other nation.

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