Why are these Games so unusual?
Their location, for one. The bewildering decision to hold the Winter Olympics at the balmy Black Sea resort of Sochi has been a significant contributor to the Games' astonishing $51 billion price tag — the largest in Olympic history, and quadruple Russia's original estimate. The athletes' exploits could also be overshadowed by protests over Russia's recent anti-gay law, and the foreboding threat of terrorism from Sochi's neighboring restive North Caucasus region. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to make Sochi a huge success, having spent so many rubles in the hopes that the Olympics will revitalize Russia's tired, post-Soviet image in the world. "Every leader has a mega-project," said Alexander Gentelev, director of a film on Sochi, Putin's Games. "For Putin it is the Sochi Olympics."
How did Sochi win the bid?
Through a mix of Putin's charm, grand ambition, and promises to spend lots of money. The South Korean resort of Pyeongchang had been the clear favorite to host the Games, until Putin made it his personal mission to secure the bid, traveling to Guatemala City in 2007 to make Russia's final pitch and sweet-talk members of the International Olympic Committee into voting 51–47 in Sochi's favor. "Putin being here was very important," said IOC member Jean-Claude Killy. "He worked very hard at it. He was nice. He spoke French — he never speaks French." It also helped that Putin's original guarantee to spend $12 billion on the project dwarfed the other candidates' budgets. But now that costs have ballooned, Sochi's price tag has become a source of some embarrassment. "In the beginning, money was a reason and argument for Russia to win the right to host the Olympics," said Igor Nikolaev, director of strategic analysis at FBK, a Moscow consulting firm. "But it turned out we spent so much that everybody is trying not to talk about it anymore."
Why is it costing so much?
Attempting to stage winter events in a subtropical resort known as the "Russian Riviera" is an expensive, climate-defying business. Though the 7,600-foot-high slopes at the neighboring mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana are almost guaranteed February snow, the same can't be said for the lower slopes or at sea level, where the average daytime winter temperature is a pleasant 52 degrees. So officials have had to drain swamps, store last year's snow, and install 400 snowmaking machines. Meanwhile, at least 70,000 laborers — many of them migrant workers working seven days a week for as little as $500 a month — were shipped in to build more than a dozen venues, 20,000 new hotel rooms, new roads, bridges, and tunnels, a renovated airport, and new railway lines. There is also a more sinister reason why the budget will surpass even the $40 billion Beijing spent on the extravagant 2008 Summer Olympics.
What is that?
Corruption. "The Sochi Olympics are an unprecedented thieves' caper," says former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. He claims that some $26 billion in phony costs may have been creamed off by contractors, many of whom are Putin cronies. Consider the new 31-mile road and railway that run from the beachfront town of Adler to the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort, overseen by Vladimir Yakunin, a former KGB general and Putin pal who heads Russian Railways. The new route into Sochi cost an estimated $8.7 billion — more than Vancouver spent staging the entire Winter Olympics in 2010. For that sum, calculated the Russian edition of Esquire, Russia could have paved the entire road with beluga caviar.
What about terrorism?
It's a serious concern. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov has urged his Islamist fighters in the neighboring North Caucasus to target the Games and cause as much carnage as possible. The Olympics, says Umarov, are being held "on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea." As proof that this threat is not idle, two men from the North Caucasus carried out deadly bombings in December in the city of Volgograd — the northeastern gateway to Sochi — killing 32 people. In response, Putin has deployed more than 30,000 police and interior ministry troops in Sochi, in one of the biggest security operations in Olympic history.
What happens to Sochi later?
Putin hopes the seaside town will become a year-round resort that attracts everything from Formula 1 races to political conferences like the G-8 summit, scheduled to be held there in June. Others expect Sochi to go the way of past Olympic host communities Athens and Beijing, where many of the facilities now sit empty. For Russia's president, however, what's most important is that the Games themselves go off successfully. "Putin believes that the Winter Games are his personal project and his personal triumph," says Nemtsov. "He wants to demonstrate his power to the whole world."
Defying Putin's anti-gay law
Russia caused outrage last year when it passed a law banning "gay propaganda," a blanket term for any behavior that promotes homosexuality, punishable by up to 15 days in jail. The bill raised widespread calls for world leaders and athletes to boycott the Games, and though the IOC says it's "fully satisfied" the legislation doesn't violate the Olympic charter, President Barack Obama nevertheless announced he wouldn't be attending Sochi, defiantly appointing two openly gay ex-athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, to go instead. All eyes will now be on Russia's police and security forces and the IOC to see how they respond to protests — including a planned gay-pride parade in Sochi on the opening day of the Olympics. Not that Putin will be fazed by the criticism; in Russia, open derision of homosexuality remains commonplace. "Nothing the West says can influence him at all on issues like gay rights," says Marc Bennetts, author of Kicking the Kremlin. "A rift with the West only makes him look stronger at home."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should really take a nap this afternoon, according to science
- How U.S. special forces are preparing for the worst-case scenario in North Korea
- Why Israel can no longer let the Palestinian Authority be responsible for security in the West Bank
- Why you shouldn't eat dog. Not even once.
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The safest seats are at the back of the plane — and 5 other surprising facts about airline crashes
- How social conservatives became a minority in need of protection
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Why charity can't solve society's deepest problems
- The biggest lesson Obama failed to learn from Bush
Subscribe to the Week