Sochi: Countdown to the Olympics

Sochi: Countdown to the Olympics

This winter, the eyes of the world are on Sochi, a Black Sea port and resort town whose palm tree-lined promenade and nearby backdrop of mountains will come under the spotlight for the twenty-second Winter Olympic Games. For two weeks in February, 85 nations, more than 2500 athletes, and hundreds of thousands of spectators will come together in a flurry of events to celebrate athleticism and diplomacy.

With a $51 billion price tag—that’s twice the budget of the London summer games — Russia is pulling out all the stops. Brand new indoor venues cluster around Medal Plaza, all within walking distance of one another, in downtown Sochi, while a “Mountain Cluster” for alpine and Nordic events lies 45 minutes away by a brand new rail line which will be free to ticketholders on the day of the event.

An estimated 42,000 hotel rooms are available in the Sochi area, with advertised rates at around $750 -1000. But there are signs that those rooms may not fill up. Only 70% of event tickets have been sold, and Russians will make up three-quarters of spectators. By comparison, 97% of the seats were filled at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. It’s thought that security concerns, travel costs, and a relatively isolated location are keeping many international fans away from Sochi. However, the organizing committee is anticipating strong last-minute ticket sales.

This will be the first time since the fall of the USSR for Russia to host the Olympics. Growing concerns about security, freedom of speech, and even quality of available medical care are throwing a shadow on the Games. The U.S. State Department issued travel alerts for Russia, advising travelers to “remain attentive regarding their personal security at all times,” and to consider purchasing private medical evacuation and/or repatriation insurance, as “medical capacity and infrastructure in Sochi are untested for handling the volume of visitors expected for the Olympics.”

LGBT rights have become the hot topic of this year’s Games. Russia passed a law last summer banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, with fines, prison terms, and deportation as possible penalties. And recently, Sochi’s mayor declared that homosexuality is “not accepted here in the Caucasus.” Several world leaders have snubbed this attitude by boycotting the Olympics or sending a delegation that includes openly gay athletes, as President Obama has done.

Protests and demonstrations are not expected to disrupt Olympic ceremonies or events, as Russia designated a nearby village as the site for approved political demonstrations. No rally, protest, or demonstration will be allowed elsewhere.

Another cloud over the Olympic flame, the risk of terrorism, is keeping some would-be spectators away from Sochi. Concern about potential attacks heightened after several suicide bombings shook the region. The unconfirmed presence of a “black widow” suicide bomber in Sochi has officials on edge. The American Olympic team was cautioned not to wear their Team USA gear outside official Olympic venues to avoid being targeted.

In spite of these red flags, Sochi officials and Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that the Games will be safe. Security checkpoints at train stations and airports were upgraded, and Sochi underwent a massive infrastructure upgrade, from a new electrical grid to modern highways and landscaping. The city is offering  free English lessons to locals to better welcome visitors.

After the curtain falls on the 2014 Winter Olympics, what’s next for Sochi? The resort town will be set to attract even more tourists to enjoy the year-round destination. It will play host to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, as well as the Formula One Russian Grand Prix from 2014 to 2020. . . an intriguing future for an intriguing destination.