The 2014 Winter Olympics will open in a swamp in one of the warmest places in Russia.
While the alpine events will take place in the mountains that tower above Sochi, the only piece of flat land that can accommodate stadiums and ice rinks is located on a narrow stretch of shoreline along the Black Sea.
The Olympic Park, with a total of six arenas, has sprouted up on a drained wetland that until a few years ago was a state farm, or sovkhoz, founded by Josef Stalin. There used to be up to six crops a year given the mildness of the climate and fertility of the soil. The first harvest was in February, the same month as the Winter Olympics.
I first visited the location in April 2009, when local residents were alarmed at the blue metal construction fences that kept creeping closer to their homes. By the time I returned in July 2011, the fields had been transformed into a gigantic, dusty construction site with trucks and buses shuttling to and fro.
Murat Akhmadiyev, a short, barrel-chested Tatar from Kazakhstan, was managing construction of the 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome, future site of Olympic hockey matches. The stadium’s concrete core was encased in a web of curved metal frames that were about to be covered by concave glass panels. From a distance, the dome resembled a huge bug.
Workers were on the job 24/7, Akhmadiyev said above the din of clattering jackhammers.
His blue eyes flashing, Akhmadiyev vigorously – and preemptively – defended the engineering decisions behind the Olympic Park. Environmentalists feared that the soil would turn to clay, destroying a delicate ecosystem. Geologists warned that the giant structures would gradually subside.
The topsoil from the fields had been carefully removed, Akhmadiyev reassured me. He had little patience for critics who claimed that cracks were already forming in the foundation of his stadium: the construction was multi-platformed to distribute the structure’s weight, so it was perfectly normal that there were gaps.
I’d heard that some stadiums would be dismantled and moved after the games were over. Three smaller arenas would have that capability, Akhmadiyev said. But never mind, they were still being built as permanent structures.
Akhmadiyev pointed at a row of ramshackle houses near the waterfront. These homes, together with some newly constructed mini-hotels, would have to make way for a five-kilometer beach promenade. Most of these structures were illegal, he said, as they had been constructed without the necessary permits.
One day Russia’s first Formula One track is to loop its way around the arenas in the Olympic Park. And Fisht Stadium, the largest of the venues, will hold international soccer matches when Russia hosts the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Vladimir Putin has big ideas for Sochi.
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Demolition, relocation and compensation have caused Sochi residents the greatest anxiety. Sima Aivazyan, my pretty guide from the Olympic organizing committee, took pains to demonstrate that their fears were unjustified.
As we trundled through the vast construction site, we passed a clump of trees enclosed by a fence – the Old Believers cemetery. I remembered how locals had complained two years earlier that it would be sacrilegious to build on a graveyard. It wouldn’t be touched, Aivazyan said.
Three acquaintances of hers who had been forced to move because of Olympic construction were perfectly content, she said. One friend had been able to buy an apartment twice as large as her original place with the compensation she received.
Nekrasovskoye, a new settlement to house relocated families, is a subdivision of neat houses in light pastel colors with red roofs.
We arrived at Nekrasovskoye on the edge of the Olympic Park, one of seven new settlements to house relocated families. It didn’t look like any other neighborhood I’d seen before in Russia: a subdivision of 112 neat houses, two or three stories high, in light pastel colors with red roofs.
The largest home had 18 rooms, equivalent to the size of the owner’s previous property, Aivazyan said. One babushka had even received the pink bathroom she requested.
I asked Aivazyan about the environmental cost of Olympic construction. There will be an “ornithopark” on the new embankment, she explained. When I asked if it would be enough to compensate for the destruction of the natural habitat of rare bird species, Aivazyan replied that only “two or three birds” were affected.
She repeated the official mantra that construction followed strict “green standards” and that everything was being monitored by UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program.
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The next day I met Vladimir Ostapuk, a thin, elderly man who was the Sochi mayor’s point-man on ecological issues and the head of a company that prepares environmental impact assessments for construction projects. He received me in his office on USSR Constitution Street.
I was confused by Ostapuk’s different hats: besides his other positions, his business card identified him as the head of the local association of Belarusians. During our conversation, Ostapuk kept shifting in his seat and yawning widely – I hoped from fatigue and not boredom.
I asked him pointblank for his assessment of Olympic construction.
“There’s one conclusion to be made: as long as man inhabits the Earth, the environment will be destroyed,” he began philosophically. “If man doesn’t change his ego, he will destroy everything that’s weaker than him.”
Ostapuk said he had studied former Winter Olympic sites in western Europe. On the plus side, the games had helped develop the respective regions; on the negative side, they had changed the local environment, even when best practices had been put into place.
“Of course the Winter Olympics shouldn’t be held in the subtropics, because Russia is a cold country,” he finally said.
The location hadn’t been chosen correctly, Ostapuk continued. Putin’s managers, like regional governor Alexander Tkachyov, were responsible for the “strategic error” of putting the winter games in balmy Sochi. Ostapuk was careful not to blame Putin himself.
His company was under contract by Olympstroy, the state Olympic construction company, to do an environmental assessment, Ostapuk said.
I expressed surprise that a report had been ordered so late in the process.
“Better late than never,” he said.
An environmental report should have been made before Sochi’s application to the International Olympic Committee, Ostapuk said. Half a year after Sochi was chosen in 2007, a study concluded that the Olympics shouldn’t be held there – but the government ignored it.
“Now construction is proceeding in violation of various laws,” Ostapuk said. The deadlines are off, the technology is old.
I protested that green standards were being observed under UNEP monitoring.
“They’re hanging a noodle on your ear,” Ostapuk said, using the Russian expression for pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes.
“There are attempts at green technology. But there is no will.”