SOCHI - For those around the world watching the Olympic Games on television, the location of the event is not, in the end, what matters. The important thing is who is skating faster, spinning better and winning golds and silvers.
And then, before we know it, they ski away – in just a couple of weeks. The question that will remain instead for Russia is what will be left of the massive seven-year financial and construction effort that led to the Winter Olympics in Sochi?
Our country’s previous experience with the Olympics – in 1980 – turned out to be quite successful in terms of “legacy.” Almost everything that was built for the Olympics was not only used afterwards, but, as we now can see clearly, absolutely necessary for Moscow.
The hotels provided middle-range accommodations, which up until that point had been sorely lacking in our capital. The Olympic sports’ complex is still Moscow’s main concert arena. The Olympic Village was long considered one of the best regions of the capitol to live in. And the Sheremetevo Airport, the second-largest in Russia, was also built expressly for the 1980 Olympics.
There are two basic reasons that the post-Olympics was a success last time around. First of all, in 1980 Moscow didn’t have enough of anything - not just hotels, but also housing, infrastructure and sports arenas. So all the new projects were truly needed. Secondly, nobody at any level of involvement had any interest in planning unnecessary or exorbitant buildings within the Soviet regime. There also wasn’t a major amount of propaganda about the games until the United States announced its boycott. As a result, everything was modest, functional and useful for the whole city long after the athletes left town.
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Moscow's Olympic village is still very much in use (Shakura)
In this way, it was a lot like the Olympic Games in London, in fact. The 2012 Summer Games were actually one of the most modest Olympics in the past two decades. Yet the London games cost 11 billion pounds - more than two times as much as the official cost of the games in Sochi.
Just the basics
How is that possible? Here’s how. London’s declared investment includes absolutely everything that was spent for the Olympics, most of which came from the government. Here in Sochi we counted a little differently. The only things that are considered part of the ‘Olympic’ budget are the things that are absolutely necessary for the games to take place. A trampoline, for example, since there is an Olympic discipline that involves a trampoline. Seating for the spectators is also counted, since you can’t really have hundreds of people just standing around. A driveway from the road to the trampoline? That counts. But work on the road itself? That doesn’t count, since theoretically athletes, spectators and journalists could have taken the old road, although they would have been stuck in traffic jams for hours.
So rebuilding the roads leading to Sochi is considered infrastructure, not part of the Olympics. Under the same rationale, hotel construction also doesn’t count, since guests could theoretically have stayed in the hotels that already existed.
In fact, in London there wasn’t a single hotel constructed for the games, since the existing hotels were enough. Several developers got permits to build hotels for the Games, but they didn’t end up building them, deciding to build housing instead.
So that vast majority of spending in the run-up to the Olympics has been on these infrastructure projects. What is wrong with that? The problem is that they were no longer thinking like they did in Moscow 34 years ago. Instead of building the minimum necessary, the are building the maximum possible.
Of course, many of the projects for the Games were needed and should have been planned, Olympics or not. These included building water mains throughout the city, bringing gas service to the skiing village of Krasnaya Polyana, a new port, cleaning up the infrastructure and building a new airport terminal. The new airport terminal was actually built before the Olympic Committee had voted to have the 2014 games in Sochi – and was crucial in the city’s pitch for hosting the Games.
Empty trains and hotel rooms
But most of the construction has actually been done solely for the Olympics. Let’s take, for example, the modern road between Sochi’s city center and Krasnaya Polyana. It used to be a run-down, two-lane road that followed the banks of the Mzymta river. Now it is a major highway with no traffic lights, flanked by a high-speed train that travels a total of 48 kilometers. This project alone cost more than all of the rest of the spending on the Olympics, according to the official figures.
This road will only be used if a large number of people travel between Sochi’s city center and the coast and the mountains in Krasnaya Polyana. That is exactly what will happen during the Winter Games - in fact, people are likely to make the trip more than once a day. But once the Olympic flag comes down, that train is going to be absolutely useless. It can’t compete with taxis, with the difference in price insignificant for the kind of people who can afford to come to one of Europe’s most expensive ski resorts. And now that there’s a new road, there’s not going to be any traffic jams.
But what if summer vacationers in Sochi want to visit the site of the Olympic Village? Isn’t that why a special high-speed light rail was built, which travels between the two places every half hour? Even after looking at what it cost to build the train system, many people think it will only be used during the Olympics. Afterwards, it would be better, and cheaper, to just close it down.
Now let’s take a look at the hotels. Sochi was required by the Olympic Committee to build more than 40,000 hotel rooms. During the Games, they will all be full. But afterwards: In order to even get to a 75% occupancy rate during peak season, Sochi would have to attract half a million more visitors during the three-month ski season. Even if Sochi manages to do that, and even if you include the summer vacation visitors, it’s overall hotel occupancy rates will only reach 40%.
Somebody pinch me if you can call this business. Of course it isn’t business. It is the generous Russian soul. Generosity that has been heavily subsidized by government loans. How much will actually be paid back, how much will be written off? That ratio is one way that we may be able to evaluate whether or not the Games were a financial success.