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The Winter Olympics under Sochi’s palm trees

The Iceberg Winter Sports Palace in the Olympic Park of Sochi AFP

Subtropical Sochi is welcoming the Winter Olympics. The town continues to rejoice in its reputation as “Russia’s third capital”. But when went to visit, it found sharply differing opinions about the Games among local people.

For anyone visiting Sochi for the first time, there’s one important thing to realise: the area known as “greater Sochi” stretches for some 140 kilometres along the coast. Its traffic snarl-ups amaze even Muscovites, who are no stranger to jams themselves. And Adler, the site of the international airport, is not a separate town, as many people think, but simply a district of Sochi. Adler – the Olympic Park – and Krasnaya Polyana are where the Olympic competitions will be held.

As you fly into Sochi, you can see the sea, which puts you in a positive frame of mind, and it is hard to remember that you are not here on holiday, but to work. It’s difficult to square the presence of magnolias and palm trees with the knowledge that this is the capital of the Winter Olympics.

So what do the locals feel about what is happening here? Taxi driver Rafael Chokolyan has been living in Sochi for more than 20 years. He came from Abkhazia [a disputed territory just south of Sochi] after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and is looking forward to the Games.

“The town is changing before our very eyes. New roads, flyovers and infrastructure are being built,” he says.

But Igor Parkhomenko, a private entrepreneur and native of the town, thinks it would have been better for the Games to have been held elsewhere. We met in central Sochi. The temperature was 16 degrees Celsius, the sun was shining – a welcome change from freezing, grey Bern.

Sochi lies on the Black Sea, at the foot of the mountains of the Northern Caucasus.

It has a population of 430,000, drawn from more than 100 different ethnic groups.  

It covers an area of 200,000 hectares, of which 30,000 are made up of gardens, areas of trees and natural conservation areas. The town stretches for about 140 km along the coast.

Sochi is located in the humid subtropical zone, at a latitude of 43 degrees north – the same latitude as Nice, Toronto, Almaty and Vladivostok.

According to Forbes magazine, in 2012 Sochi was the best Russian city to do business in.

‘Sparkling Sochi’

Parkhomenko has a small office not far from the station. As we walked towards it, I remarked on the plethora of construction cranes and of course on the abundance of southern vegetation in Sochi. “There’s still a lot of this sort of beauty here,” he commented. 

He recalled the unenthusiastic reception that local people gave to the news that the Winter Games had been awarded to Sochi. Many of his friends from other regions wondered what the problem was.

“‘You’re really hard to please; you’re awarded such a big event and you’re complaining about it’ – that’s what they said. But just let them come and live on the building site, with its continuous rumbling and lorries churning up mud and creating dust,” he said.

“The huge scale of the work means that infrastructure keeps breaking down: if it’s not the water supply, it’s the gas that gets cut. And there’s an awful lot of construction going on: sports facilities, flyovers, commercial properties and hotels. And it’s been like that for the past six years.”

Chokolyan had a different take. “All this building work doesn’t just produce noise and dust. It has advantages too. It’s created new jobs. People are pleased. I don’t know how much they earn on the construction sites, but if they are working it means they are happy with it all: the work, working conditions and the money.”

He did have one grumble. “I have to wash my car twice a day. But they will get everything ship-shape and wash away the dust, and our Sochi will be left sparkling”.

Igor Parkhomenko says locals weren’t enthusiastic at first

Infrastructure and traffic jams

The magic word “infrastructure” is on everyone’s lips. Of course it is impressive how many interchanges have been built, although overall the problem of traffic jams has not yet been solved.

This is not least to do with the fact that when most of the roads were planned, Sochi was expected to develop as a holiday resort, not as somewhere with lots of commercial high-rises; that is why they were not designed to cope with a growing volume of transport.

Furthermore, the roads are basically two-lane, so when there is an accident, traffic is bound to grind to a halt.

“People quickly forget the bad things,” said Oleg Smerechinsky, who owns a bookshop in Sochi.

“Two or three years before the decision [to award the Games to Sochi] was taken in Guatemala, during the evening rush hour it could take up to six hours to travel the 3-3.5 kilometres from the centre of Adler to the railway station via the Adler ring road. The route included a stretch of the two-lane ring road, which was fed by four or five slip roads. Now even if you are very unlucky it takes an hour at most.”

A dynamic young man, he takes a pragmatic approach to what is going on. “When you build an interchange costing several billion roubles, it’s fair enough to discuss whether all the money has ended up in the right place, but not whether the flyover is necessary. There is absolutely no doubt at all that the road had to be built.”



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Strict controls

For him, that is a positive impact of the Olympics. “Not a single flyover has been built here since 1991 other than in connection with some major federal project,” he said, while admitting that roads are not everything: there is also the problem of transport and infrastructure.

The station in Adler is brand new. It was opened about two months ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fast trains, which are to carry Olympic participants and visitors, are already in service between Sochi airport and the railway stations in both central Sochi and in Adler.

Strict controls are in place at the station itself – for the sake of security, it is explained. If you leave the station building for just five minutes and come back, you have to show your passport again and pass through a metal detector.

But what is even more surprising is that there are no cafes or restaurants, nor even any counters where you can pick up a quick coffee and sandwich – something that in most of Europe is almost the first thing to be installed.

“The station is too big and doesn’t even offer a minimum of comfort,” said Parkhomenko, but he pointed out that most people who spend their holidays in the Adler region come by plane rather than by train.

Spa resort

Sochi has an unusual climate for Russia: even in the hottest summers its closeness to the sea means it never becomes uncomfortable, while the winters are warm (6-8 degrees) thanks to the mountains, which protect the region from cold winds.

Sochi’s coat of arms includes the words: “Health for the People”, which is justified by the presence of mineral springs here.

In the 1950s to 1970s it was mainly a spa town, a health resort, where people came to get cured.

“All the sanatoria, the railway infrastructure and airport developed after the war when they did an assessment of the region’s potential,” explained Smerechinsky.

“At that time the authorities decided that Sochi should be developed along with the Crimea and a few other spas in the Caucasus, and investments started flowing in. That’s why nothing fundamentally new is happening here: there was a major construction site here in the 1950s as well.”

Ecologist Olga Noskovets of the EkoVakhta (EcoWatch) organisation explained that people weren’t against the Games at first.

“They thought the project would give lustre to Sochi and the town would become an international spa. We have everything you need for that: clean air, water, sea and parks,” she said as we strolled along the Imeretin Valley.

“But there was a change of opinion even in the very first year when they started moving people out in order to build some of the facilities. There were conflicts and things were destroyed that people had actually wanted to develop.”

‘Fences, mud and noise’

EkoVakhta, established in 1997 to preserve the natural surroundings in the Northern Caucasus, keeps a record of all the violations of regulations arising from the construction of the Olympic sites.

“The entire Imeretin Valley had been regarded as a conservation area since before the [1917] Revolution. Until recently there were farms here, which supplied the region with vegetables. Now nothing of this is left – it’s all facilities for the Olympics,” she said.

Indeed, many of those whom swissinfo spoke to remembered how it used to be all orchards and fields. Krasnaya Polyana, for example, was a small village of a thousand inhabitants.

Alexander Frolov is the manager of a company involved in GPS surveying. He lives in Moscow, but spent a lot of time in Sochi on business at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s.

“At the end of the Nineties Sochi was a pleasant resort town. Most of the buildings were two or three storeys, which is what a resort ought to be like, in my opinion. Krasnaya Polyana was a quiet, remote place: if a dog barked, you could hear it five kilometres away,” he recalled.

“Now when I came back in January 2013, it was all fences, mud and noise – I felt it was just awful.”

Olga Noskovets says the project has had a negative impact on some people’s lives

Sewage plant

Smerechinsky thinks the sacrifices are worth it. We are travelling down the new route linking Adler and Krasnaya Polyana. This is to be the main transport artery of the Games, with road and railway running parallel to each other straight down the left bank of the river Mzymt.

The old road also runs along the valley, but is full of hairpin bends. He believes that the work done for the Olympics means that it has taken just five or six years to build what would have been built anyway, “but it would have taken 30 to 50 years”.

The new roads and improved electricity supply are a bonus, and for the first time Krasnaya Polyana has an effluent disposal system and a sewage plant.

Having spent a long time working in Sochi, Frolov remembers the town when it was small and manageable – he would like it to continue to be so in the future. “You simply can’t pour a bucket of water into a thimble, as they say. But that’s exactly what the authorities are trying to do,” he said.

“I’m always astonished when I hear people claiming that ‘if it weren’t for the Olympics, Sochi would simply have fallen apart’. That means that every Russian town needs to hold the Olympic Games.”

Rafael Chokolyan thinks the Games have been good for the area

Life after the Games

Along with the question as to whether it would have been possible to invest the money better, what many people want to know is what will happen after the Games.

As far as the Olympic sites themselves are concerned, the organisers say that in some cases the interiors will be completely rebuilt and they will be turned into fair and exhibition complexes, while others will remain as they are and will be used for international sports events and for Russian athletes to train in.

Russia will host the football World Cup in 2018 and some of the matches will be in Sochi, so the infrastructure will be useful.

Post-Olympic Sochi will provide work for professionals from the hospitality industry and from related businesses. But only time will tell if Sochi really will become a world-class resort.

“When you travel through Sochi, what you see now is not plane trees and the sea, as you used to, but building site after building site. And lots of them are frozen. Monstrous skeletons of 20-storey buildings – who ever thought of putting up such high buildings in a seismic zone?” asked Frolov.

(Translated from Russian by Julia Slater)

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