Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Winter Olympics, Sochi, Russia

Today, an American snowboarder pulls out of the Winter Olympics at Sochi, over safety concerns - and it's headline news; we have constant flow of negative reports filling our airwaves and newspapers: reports of unfinished venues, lack of accommodation for journalists, mild weather / potential lack of snow, terrorist attacks, environmental concerns, bribery and corruption, anti-gay legislation; huge costs and budget overruns. I can't help thinking that the western media is rubbing its hands with glee over any scandal or problem affecting the forthcoming Winter Olympics - they want it to fail. 

Even the supposed fact of a journalist bitten by the tiger that Putin was photographed with is seen as newsworthy (the tiger in question is just a cub, and there is some doubt over whether the incident happened. 

Sure, this is a massive propaganda exercise for President Putin, which may or may not be successful in masking or fixing any of Russia's many problems, but it is seen on the international stage as an opportunity for political point scoring.

One notable exception to this negativity was a recent 2-part BBC program: Russia on 4-wheels - a whistle stop tour of the "new" and "old" Russias. Two presenters set off from Sochi in different directions: one in a modern armour plated people carrier (more like a tank) favoured by oligarchs, heading northwards to Moscow, St Petersburg and Murmansk; the other in a 40 year old UAZ headed off eastwards to the Urals via Togliatti, Volgograd, Perm and Nizhny Novgorod. I enjoyed the program and I felt it gave a fairly even handed coverage of Russia in general and the Sochi Olympic preparations in particular - it was a fairly short series - two hour-long episodes to cover a lot of material.

Their report on Sochi visited the impressive facilities, the huge infrastructure projects - the presenters seemed genuinely impressed and were positive about the faciltiers.  But they didn't gloss over some of the negatives: the alleged corruption and the adverse environmental impact on Sochi and it's residents.

Much has been made of the huge cost of hosting the Olympics - as if this alone was evidence of corruption. The scale of spending is huge. The most expensive Olympics to date was Beijing which came in at $43 billion - the London games were a modest $10.4 billion. Sochi 2014 is estimated to be $50 billion. This seems at first glance to be profligate to the extreme, with the cost of hosting the games generally in the region of $3 billion.  But much of the costs incurred in Sochi relate to the infrastructure and civic development rather than on Olympic facilities alone - and this has been a mammoth undertaking.  

There are seven new venues built in two locations: an Olympic Park was constructed in Sochi's Imeretinsky Valley on the coast of the Black Sea, with Fisht Olympic Stadium and the Games' indoor venues located within walking distance, and snow events will be held in the nearby mountains at Krasnaya Polyana - at a new, world-class ski resort which has been built

But this represents a very small part of the overall project -  in addition, preparation for the games has included modernizing the telecommunications, electric power, and transportation infrastructures of the region. This has involved building new and improving many roads, tunnels, bridges, interchanges, railroads and stations in and around Sochi. There are new road and rail links (a four-lane highway up the mountains, and a high speed train link: Moscow to Adler, near Sochi), and extensive tunneling through the mountains.  
This has generally been overlooked by western media.

Legacy is an important consideration in Olympic developments, this one will be huge for the region.  With improved links to Moscow and regional connections, it may help to establish Sochi as a year round international tourist destination.  

I think it's time to stop the sniping, the criticisms, and negativity and lets just enjoy the games.

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